By Matt McGowan
Two days before Thanksgiving, Patsy and I were sitting in the office and arguing about stuffing. You have to cook it inside the cavity of the turkey, I told her, or you can’t call it stuffing, but she just kept on about a fancy casserole she’d learned from her sister-in-law in Oklahoma City. It’s not stuffing then, I countered. “Fine,” said Patsy, “dressing’s the better word, anyway.”
“Y’all argued about this last year,” said Katie, tossing a file on my desk.
This time she didn’t walk away, so I obliged her by opening it. Right away I noticed one of the witnesses lived on Malugen, a gravel road way back in Sucker Flats, the old mining camp north of town.
“Ah hell,” I said. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”
“You remember it?” said Katie.
“I do. It was all over the news. Ole boy got run over.”
Katie tapped the file. “I’m sorry he died,” she said, “but it looks like he wasn’t much of a contribution.”
“It don’t matter, I guess.” I finished reading the list of witnesses, while Katie thrummed her fingers on my desk.
“There’s children involved,” she said.
“I see that. What a damned mess.”
She pointed to a name at the top. “That boy . . .”
“He might know everything.”
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Kind of sensitive, ain’t it?”
Katie crossed her arms. “You gotta talk to him.”
“I will,” I said.
She looked down at the list again and put her finger on a different name. It was the witness on Malugen Road. “And that one,” she said. “She’s the mom.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll find her.”
* * *
I read the police report. Sheriff’s deputies had done a good job of putting the facts together. A thirty-two-year-old man had been struck by a car and killed. Two children, the six-year-old and a toddler, were in the vehicle driven by our defendant, a man named Jesse Sergeant, also thirty-two. But I found something odd in the report. It said as many as eight more people had been at the scene. According to Sergeant’s statement, these people had “disappeared into the woods.”
* * *
I met Sergeant at Chicken Mary’s on the old highway south of Pittsburg. Not the one between Joplin and Webb City. That’s Chicken Annie’s. Annie and Mary are sisters. Everyone gets them confused. His mother came, and they brought the six-year-old boy. Terms of bail specified that Sergeant was not allowed to be alone with the children. Over the phone, I’d advised him not to violate that order.
I decided to talk to the boy first. That way he could go outside with the grandmother after. He was a cute kid with big ears, bright eyes and a shaggy mess of blond hair.
I turned on the recorder and slid it up onto the table behind the napkin dispenser. “Son,” I said, “you mind if I ask you some questions?”
He looked at his grandmother. “It’s okay,” she said.
The boy told me what happened. He said dad came to get him and his brother at the house on Malugen. Mom was yelling at dad when they tried to leave.
“She was smokin’ a cigarette,” the boy said. “My teacher says they’re bad for you.”
“Well,” I said, “she’s right about that. Go on.”
“Dad put Aaron in his seat. Mom was yelling. She came down to the car. We tried to leave, but the road was slippery. We went back and forth . . .” The boy had a Hot Wheels car. He put it on the table and moved it back and forth, showing me how it went in the mud. “My dad was trying to turn around,” he said. “It took a while.”
“But you got out?”
“We got stuck one time and had to use a witch.”
“Winch,” said the grandmother.
“What?” said the boy.
“Honey, it’s called a winch.”
“Then what happened?” I said.
The boy dropped his head and stared at his lap, where he’d put the Hot Wheels. He was playing with the toy and didn’t want to talk.
“It’s okay,” said the grandmother. “Tell the man what happened next.”
“They came out of the woods and banged the windows,” said the boy. “Even dad was scared. He went back and forth like before . . .” The boy demonstrated again with the toy car.
“I understand,” I said. “So then what happened?”
“They wouldn’t get out of the way.”
The boy stopped and played with the toy, spinning it, rolling it on the table, almost bumping into his grandmother’s iced tea. Then he picked it up and dropped it in his lap again.
“It’s okay, son,” I said.
“Tell him what happened,” said the grandmother.
The boy took a deep breath. “Dad was trying . . .” he said. “He got going, but then it bumped . . .”
“It bumped?” I said.
“I felt the bump again and we got out of there,” said the boy. “Dad drove fast to the creek. That’s where we stopped.”
“Was that it?” I asked.
“My dad was breathing really hard,” he said. “We got away from the people . . .”
“I’m glad,” I said.
The boy was excited now and more animated. He squirmed for momentum and scooched forward on the seat. “My dad drank a whole beer right there,” he said. “He was really nervous.”
The grandmother took him outside, and Sergeant came in. He told me the same story that he’d had some words with the mother and a hard time getting out of there. “Then those zombies came out of the woods . . .” he said, looking away from me and shaking his head, “. . . and I just panicked.”
I asked Sergeant who these people were as we headed outside to find the grandmother. Before we stepped outside, he grabbed my shirtsleeve. “You been around meth much?” he asked.
* * *
Folks round here don’t like government. They make that pretty clear. It’s why I don’t drive a county car, especially to places like Sucker Flats or Zinc Town. They see me pulling up with a county decal on the car, I wouldn’t even make it to the front porch. I drive my own car, a little Ford Escort. The salesman said it’s purple. Patsy calls it eggplant. I didn’t even know that was a color.
I started out to the Flats in the late afternoon, when folks would be drowsy or huddled around the wood stoves. The sun hadn’t shown in almost a week, and that afternoon, a light gray cloud blanketed southwest Missouri. By the time I reached King Jack, around 4 p.m., the temperature had dropped below freezing and snow had started to fall. I noticed it first on the windshield and then later on the glassy surface of Turkey Creek.
I drove under the railroad trestle and farther into the woods until I reached the edge of the Flats. I knew where to go – to the end of the paved road and then some. I drove slow and kept my eyes open. It was quiet and lonesome back in there. A cat slinked across the road. I drove farther on, until I came to a cattle gate blocking the road. This was disturbing because I knew every road back in here was public.
Someone had twisted baling wire around both ends of the gate and tied it to a cluster of honeysuckle on one side and a hedge tree on the other. I had to step around rotten hedge apples to unwind the wire and open the gate.
I was on gravel road then and it was rough, divots everywhere and deep ruts carved out by runoff. The clay holding the gravel together was starting to loosen and getting slick because of the snow. The Escort’s tires lapped against the wet clay as I bounced from hole to hole. At the top of a rise, the tree canopy thinned and the road flattened out, but it wasn’t any smoother. The washboard surface shook and rattled the little Escort like M&Ms in a beer can. There was an old barbed-wire fencerow on my right, and I followed it to an opening.
I turned in, and the road in front of me now was a crude double track that would be hard to back out of. Here I saw a handmade sign tacked to a walnut tree: “Warning: Angry Vet Ahead.” I grabbed my binoculars out of the glove compartment and spied a house trailer and an old Ford pickup through the falling snow.
As I approached the trailer, I saw another one behind it, just inside woods. The first one was a broken shell, the roof caved in on the back side and saplings growing up inside it. Behind the truck were five badly rusted ten-gallon drums in a half-circle around a corner of the trailer. Sticks and trash spilled out of the drums, which had been used for burning, but not recently.
I heard dogs barking many seconds before I could see them. They came up the hill, crashing against each other as they sprinted toward me. They were a motley pack of shepherds and retrievers, collies and hounds and several ridiculously small dogs, including a Dachshund. In all, there must have been a dozen.
A woman teetered among them. She was heavy and had long gray hair. She walked awkwardly, favoring a bad knee. Her hands were jammed into the pockets of a thermal jacket. A cigarette dangled from her lips, but somehow she still managed to cuss the dogs.
I cracked open the car door, and a few dogs backed off, but most sniffed around, ready to attack if I wasn’t friendly. When I stepped out, they were all over me, pogoing on their hind legs and planting their paws on my chest and khakis.
“Git down!” yelled the woman, tilting and limping up the hill. “Git offa him!” She had that old-time twang, like my grandmother on my dad’s side. “They won’t hurtcha,” she said. “They’re just excited.”
“And then some,” I said. “What about him?”
One of the little ones, a coarse-haired terrier mix, had come up the hill behind the others carrying an object in his mouth. I thought it was a two-by-four, but it wasn’t milled or symmetrical. It took considerable effort for the woman to bend over and pat the animal on its head. That’s when I realized what I was looking at – a twelve-pound dog gnawing on a deer leg.
“Hell,” said the woman, “he won’t let go a that thing. It’s his prize, I guess.”
She again ordered the dogs to stand down, and she waded through three or four brave enough to defy her. The others, including the one with the deer leg, scurried off toward the trailer.
When I told her who I was looking for, she didn’t act surprised. She nodded and gave her head a little jab to the left.
“I was kind of hopin’ this was it,” I said, meaning her trailer.
“Nope,” she said, jabbing her head again. “Bit farther down.”
I thanked her and turned back toward the car, and she said, “You might just walk it. It’s awful wet down there.”
I wasn’t keen on leaving the Escort behind, but I didn’t want to get stuck, so I followed the woman’s advice and set out on foot. First I saw smoke from a stovepipe and then the greenish metallic sheen of a corrugated metal roof. The house wasn’t that far down the hill, just inside the woods and out of view of the Escort.
As I walked, damned if I didn’t hear flies – in late November and snowing! To my right, tucked away in tall grass about four feet off the double-track, was the deer carcass. Its eyes were open and the head was undisturbed, but those dogs and maybe other critters had torn hell out of that animal.
Farther down the hill, a young woman stepped out onto the porch. She was holding a can of Red Bull. I told her who I was, and I asked her if she was Carla Gibbons. She grunted. She was scrawny with sunken eyes and pasty skin. Her jeans had holes up and down the front, and she had a red scarf tied up around the back of her head like Aunt Jemima. Her t-shirt said “SlipKnoT” in letters that looked like dripping blood.
Though I’d told her who I was and the reason for my visit, she asked if I was “the law.”
“No,” I said. “I work for the public defender.”
She didn’t say anything. She drank from the Red Bull and took a cigarette out of her jeans pocket and lit it.
“I’d like to ask you a few questions?” I said.
“Y’all have two kids together?” I said.
“I’ll get’em back,” said Gibbons.
I asked about the day Sergeant picked up their kids. Gibbons smoked her cigarette and slurped on the Red Bull. “I don’t know nothin’ about that,” she said, over and over.
* * *
On my way out, it was snowing so hard that it was almost pretty in the Flats. I thought about the old woman over in Prosperity who told me stories about the miners, how they’d get off the streetcar after working twelve hours underground, their faces covered with gray soot from blasting limestone to find galena. They were rowdy as hell, she said, and ready to get drunk. I don’t know what made me think of this, other than being close to the mine, which the Superfund project plugged a few years back. But in this quiet winter land, I could almost see them stepping off the platform elevator and trudging to the streetcar.
The icy mud was slick, but if I took it slow, the little Escort did just fine. I descended the hill down into the valley of Turkey Creek. Here, my eye caught the flash of something in the woods, just this side of the creek. I tapped the brakes and looked over there, but I saw nothing other than tree skeletons and falling crystals.
I passed through the narrow area where the gate had been, seeing it was exactly where I’d put it. As I approached the hill leading up to the box bridge, I saw movement on the right flank. The Escort’s heater was running hot, and when I looked up after turning down the fan, the first one was at the passenger window. But he was gone as quickly as he appeared, and I wondered if I’d imagined it, until I felt a hard slap against the rear quarter panel.
The second one popped up here at my window, staring at me cross-eyed and spacey. He had dark eyes and scratches all over his cheeks. He flared his nostrils and then hissed, showing me his rotten teeth.
The third one climbed up onto the hood of the Escort. He moved slowly and mechanically, like an old man with rheumatism. He stood up and bounced, rocking the struts.
My mind conjured Jesse Sergeant’s face when he told me about the “zombies” and “creepy-crawlies” coming out of the woods. It seemed melodramatic at the time, but now I felt foolish for not believing him.
Startled by another blow to the rear of the car, my foot slipped off the brake, causing the one on the hood to lose his balance and fall onto the windshield. He writhed there, slipping around on the slick surface and groping for a hold. He was right in front of me, but I couldn’t see his face, because he was wearing a pullover cap with holes cut out for the eyes and mouth, like a bank robber or a Bald Knobber.
There was something pathetic about this one. He couldn’t right himself, so he rolled off the hood and joined his partner at my window, where they commenced to thumping their fists against the glass and hooting like rednecks at a cockfight.
The one with rotten teeth hissed again and started bobbing his head like a rooster. I reached down under the seat and felt the butt of the .40-caliber Glock issued to me by the county and used only during mandatory training. Damn it, I thought, I don’t want to shoot these boys in the face.
More of them came out from under the bridge and surrounded the Escort. Their frames seemed stunted, hunched over inside their hooded coats. As they formed a circle around the car, the two here at my window upped their game, jawing nonsense and shrieking like banshees.
The next blow to the rear of the Escort pissed me off. I took my foot off the brake again and started rolling forward. The hooded ones in front of me stumbled back and separated, now lining the ramp to the box bridge.
Through all the noise and commotion, not one of them had uttered a single word. Maybe they had no language, I thought, but this theory broke down when Rotten Teeth yanked on the door handle and shouted, “Open this fuckin’ door!”
Again, I reached down under the seat. The pistol felt cold on my fingers. I took it out, but I did not point it at them. I palmed the side of it and pressed the other side against the window as my right foot tapped the accelerator.
I heard someone yell, and those lining the ramp scattered. Two ran this way, right by my window, recently vacated by Rotten Teeth and his rheumatic partner, and the other three took off in front of me, crossing the bridge.
I flicked on the high beams and saw these three scrambling to get away. Then they cut and dropped out of sight, disappearing alongside the embankment of the bridge ramp. I worried they might attack the Escort from the side as I moved through, but I was going faster now, and I neither heard nor felt a thing. At the bottom of the ramp, I gassed the accelerator and checked the mirrors, but there was nothing behind me except the flickering glint of snowflakes in the dim red glow of the Escort’s tail lights.
* * *
At trial, Sergeant wore a dark blue suit that was two sizes too big. I’ve never seen anyone look so uncomfortable.
Katie marched him into Judge Reynolds’ courtroom on the second floor of old courthouse, the one made with locally quarried marble. She carried half a dozen folders under one arm and a briefcase and a cup of coffee with the other. As always, she was smart and tough, but charming, and right away I could tell the judge and jury liked her. She even called me up to the witness chair, on account of what I’d experienced out at the Flats. In all my years of doing this job, it was only the second time I’d sat in that chair.
The judge didn’t say a word the whole time I was on the stand. He was an old man, pushing eighty, a veteran of the Korean War. There was no way he could comprehend what was happening out at Sucker Flats. He knew the camp’s reputation, had in fact decided the fates of more than a few of its inhabitants, but he underestimated the meth problem. Fifteen minutes later, when Katie grilled Gibbons, the young woman I’d talked to on the porch, Reynolds’ face contorted like a man who’s been told red means go and green means stop.
“Miss Fuhr,” he said at the end of our testimony, “what’s going on out there?”
Katie was standing at the library table next to the short wall separating the judge and attorneys from the galley. “Your honor,” she said. “I don’t really know.” As the judge frowned and massaged the sides of his forehead, I looked over at Sergeant. He was already looking back at me, and his eyes said it all. He knew what was going on out there. So did I.
But none of it mattered because the case never should have gone to trial. Reynolds himself seemed confused by that alone, regardless of the facts. He showed little patience or courtesy for the prosecutor, a young man hell-bent on getting a murder conviction before running for state office. Twice, the judge said he disagreed with the charge. He wasn’t saying Sergeant was guilty or innocent, just that he’d been brought up on the wrong charge. “This was accidental,” Reynolds said. “This man was under duress.” But the prosecutor charged forward anyway, and Reynolds just shook his head, almost mocking him. I guess you can do that when you’re a seventy-eight-year-old circuit judge.
The jurors agreed. I saw them crack polite smiles during Katie’s closing argument. Considering the facts of the case and the high burden of proof for a murder conviction, even second degree, they had no choice but to acquit. I looked at Sergeant again when the foreman declared him not guilty, but this time he wasn’t looking back at me. He was up and out of his chair, shaking hands with Katie.
Behind them, on the other side of the short wall, I saw his boy. I nearly laughed at the memory of him tattling on his father for shotgunning the beer. He was all dressed up, wearing a nice pair of pants and a clean white shirt. He’d combed his hair, and someone had let him slick it back with pomade. This made me smile. It was important to him to be a big boy. I watched him reach out to shake hands with his father, but Sergeant, instead of shaking, lifted the boy over the wall and gave him a big hug.
D. Matt McGowan grew up in Webb City, Missouri. He attended Missouri Southern State College (now University) and the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Adirondack Review, Deep South Magazine, Concho River Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Arkansas Review, and others. He lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.