And the Meek Shall Inherit

“Well, it ain’t much, but you can call it home for as long as you like.”

Pam looked at the small jail cell before her: Two bunks hanging on the left.  Two wooden chairs at the back, a fold-down table built into the wall there between them, all three below a window with safety-wire woven through the panes and iron bars on the outside.

On the right wall, well, the cell might’ve been right out of an old episode of the Andy Griffith show.  On TV, however, no one ever had to go to the bathroom—at least not back then—hence there would not have been a stainless steel toilet next to the sink there.  Nor would there have been a half a roll of toilet paper by the tin cup on the sink.

Beside her, the man who had introduced himself as Dave Bartlett, the sheriff of Wardenburg (“But you just call me ‘Dave’—all my friends, do”), indicated the backpack lying against the lower bunk.  “We found it in the bushes just off the road where the boys claimed they found you.  No sign of your hiking boots, though.  I had my deputy look around while I was getting your statement at the clinic.”  He hesitated.  “Uh, just to let you know, we went through your belongings.  Standard procedure.  If we’d found anything illicit, it wouldn’t have been admissible anyway—we just wanted to find out who you were, maybe get a phone number for someone we could contact, that sort of thing.”

Pam accepted this with a nod, but winced at the sudden pain.  She put a hand to her head.

“You okay?” the sheriff asked, concerned.  “Doc Wilson said you had a concussion.”

“A concussion, two cracked ribs, two broken fingers,” Pam tallied the list.  The mirror back at the clinic had also shown her, in addition to red clay caked in her short, dark brown hair, a pair of shiners that promised to turn into truly spectacular black eyes before long.  “And a broken nose, I know.”  She sighed.  “Not to mention that other thing.”

“Sorry about that, ba—uh, kiddo,” Dave said, eyes cast down.  “Some introduction to Wardenburg, huh?”

“Yeah,” Pam said absently, gazing around the cell.  It looked clean, almost unused.  No graffiti on the walls.  “Thanks for bringing my sneakers and spare jeans though.  I don’t think I could have stood wearing the other ones.  Not after—well, you know.”  At a loss for words, she concluded lamely, “You really don’t mind if I stay here?”

“Mind?  You stay as long as you like.  Matter of fact, I’d rather you did stay.  The doc said you’d probably be wanting to sleep a lot the next couple of days.  He also said you ought to do it where someone can keep an eye on you.”  Dave removed his cap and scratched his balding head, which was fringed with decidedly non-regulation length red hair.  “Sounds wrong to me.  My granny always said you could fall into a coma if you went to sleep with a concussion.  But Doc Wilson says it’s okay, and if he says so, that’s good enough for me.”

“Uh huh.”

“How’re you feeling now?”

“Okay, I guess.  My head hurts a lot.  And I’m really tired.”

Dave unbuttoned the right pocket of his khaki shirt and pulled out two small prescription bottles, setting them down on the sink.  “The blue ones are antibiotics,” he said.  “The white ones for pain.  You need some now?”

“No.  Thanks.  Maybe later.  I’m still a little logy from the shot at the clinic.”

Dave pulled out one of the chairs.  “You’re also looking a little pale.  How ‘bout you set yourself down?”

Pam sat slowly, careful of her ribs.  “Thanks.”  She indicated the cell, but actually meant everything.

“Least I could do.”  Dave hooked the other chair out with his foot, then rested on it, leaning on his knee.  “You feel up to repeating your statement?  I want to make sure we don’t leave anything out.”

The sheriff took out a small pocket tape recorder from the pocket of his khaki slacks, pressed the record button, and set it on the bunk beside them.  Pam sighed.  Again, she thought.  Must be six times now.  How can this guy want to listen to the same story over and over? “Sure.”

“First, though,” Dave interrupted her before she could begin, “Tell me again your full name.”  He shrugged, and gestured toward the tiny recorder, its microcasette wheels slowly turning.  “Sorry, standard procedure.”

“Pamela Christine Amatangelo.  It’s on my driver’s license, in my pack.”

Dave nodded.  “Yeah, we found it.  Like I said, standard procedure—I have to ask.  Go ahead.”

*                            *                                 *

The sock was giving way under her left foot and the skin of her heel was beginning to stick to the sole of her Birkenstock trail boot.  “Damned discount store,” Pam cursed under her breath.  “Three pairs of socks for two bucks.  Didn’t Mom always say ‘you get what you pay for’?  I hate Wal-Mart!”

You ought to put on the wool socks, she thought to herself.  They’d be hot, but at least the boots won’t do your feet any more damage.

She walked on, blowing air between her teeth absently.  Next town; it’s not much furtherI’ll either put on the wool socks or buy a pair of good hiking socks, if I can find a store that has them.

Pam shifted her heavy soft-frame pack and kept on down the two-lane blacktop.  The blister seemed to be getting worse.

Come on, girl, she berated herself.  Let’s not be stupid, just because you don’t want to stop long enough to change your socks.

“Right, right, right,” she breathed, looking for a convenient place along the road to stop.  Not far ahead there was a rock, under a large green road sign.  Wild blackberry bushes grew all around, sprinkled with goldenrod.  Cattails also grew in the places wherever there was standing water, such as in the ditches along both sides of the road.  Behind them, groves of oaks, maples, and sassafras climbed the gentle, but deceptively steep foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Rummaging through her pack, she dug out both the wool socks and a metal band-aid box, inside of which, along with band-aids and antibiotic ointment, she also kept a swatch of moleskin.  Pam tore off a strip of the moleskin and applied it to her heel.  Fortunately, the blister looked like it was only getting started.  Then, she pulled her boots back on and laced them up.

Pam paused now and then to grab a few of the ripe blackberries, enjoying their tart sweetness.  The taste reminded her of her grandmother’s blackberry jams and cobbler.  The summers she used to spend with Grandma Ginelli, on her small corn and dairy farm near Butler, Pennsylvania, were among Pam’s fondest memories.  A real shame they’d ended.  Doubly unfortunate, because it had meant she’d had to spend her summers at home—with her father.

First her mother, then her grandmother.  She remembered railing against the unfairness of a God who would take them both away, leaving her all alone.  Or rather, worse than alone would have been, because with the passing of her mother, whatever good qualities her father might’ve had seemed to die with her.

“Whatever,” Pam muttered.  “It is what it is.”

Once everything was back where it belonged, she shouldered her pack again and looked up at the sign overhead.  It said there was a place about three miles up the road, called Wardenburg.  She hoped the town would be at least large enough to have a diner or place to buy a cold drink.

The sudden thought of an ice-cold Coke filled her mouth with cotton.  It was unseasonably warm for late October, she realized, even for West Virginia.

Musing about the sound ice made as it clinked in a glass, she became aware of the clattering of a loud engine somewhere on the road behind.  It was still some distance away, but the ratcheting noise made it clear the vehicle coming towards her could only possess the archaeological remains of a muffler.

Waiting for the car then, she played the game she had played countless times during the past summer, trying to guess what kind of person would be driving the approaching wreck.  Who might it be?

She let her imagination run free.  An older car, American-made.  Make it a Chevy—no, an old Chrysler K-car.  Purple.  Now it’s in disrepair, someone’s second car.  The kind of car a husband would keep just on this side of the junkyard so his wife could run errands and visit friends.

Pam imagined a youngish housewife at the wheel, hands tight on it because the front end shook a little at anything above forty.  Wearing a floral cotton dress—not in bad shape, but definitely several years out of fashion, just like the woman herself: Relatively attractive, but still several years out of the mainstream.

Maybe a mother?  It’d make sense.  Maybe she’s got her kid with her.  Maybe he’s sitting on the front seat, crying about something he hadn’t gotten while the two of them stood in the checkout line at the supermarket.  Sitting up front, even though Mama knows he ought to be in back, but he makes such a fuss…

Pam heard the car getting closer.

Should I bother trying to hitch?  If I’m right and it is a young mother, she’d never take the risk, not even for a girl like me.  After all, I could be an axe murderer.

The car clattered around the bend behind her, a battered Chevy Cavalier, light blue with red rust stains like a pox along the front and rear quarter-panels.  Not a Chrysler and not purple.  Wrong on both counts, she thought.

She saw a woman driving though, in the last seconds as the car approached, and while Pam was looking, the woman happened to glance down at the seat beside her.  Her expression certainly seemed harried enough to be a mother’s.

The woman ignored Pam’s outstretched thumb, of course.  Pam had turned around only for a few steps—it was hard walking backwards with a pack.  Now she turned back and resumed her trek down the right-hand edge of the dusty blacktop.

Well, it was worth a try. She congratulated herself on being at least partially right about the driver.

To her, this game she played was much like the way her grandmother could find lost things.  She remembered seeing Grandma standing in the middle of a room and saying in that querulous off-pitch voice of hers, “If I were a pair of scissors, where would I be hiding?”  Even if the scissors, or whatever, had fallen under the couch or sat on a bookshelf, Grandma always found them, no matter how unlikely the location.  It was uncanny.

Pam’s ‘guessing game’ consisted of trying to guess who was coming toward her while she hiked along the highways and byways of the Appalachian range.  Often, she guessed wrong; sometimes she got it right.

Like that time she got a really bad feeling about the trucker north of Troy, New York.  She hadn’t even been hitching, just enjoying the summer breezes, but the cab-over Peterbilt hauling a cargo container had stopped alongside the road ahead of her anyway.  The driver, a swarthy man with a trucker’s paunch and a dark, oddly wall-eyed stare, leaned out the passenger-side window and called, “Hey sweetcakes!  You want a ride?  Help keep a lonely old traveler company for a few hours?”

She’d heard worse lines before and on a few occasions accepted the offer anyway.  Usually, the guy was just lonely, but willing to take her at her word that she wasn’t interested in fooling around.  Only once did she have to ask to be dropped off, the driver’s taunts of “Cocktease!” almost pathetic alongside the wheedling, whiny tone of his voice.

This time however, she refused and, indicating a fortuitously nearby Denny’s, said she needed to make a few phone calls, perhaps get something to eat.  He’d shrugged and said he wasn’t in a hurry and maybe he could join her—furthermore, he was buying.  Pam begged off, thanks but she was going to be a while.  She then lied, saying she was meeting a friend shortly.

She knew she probably shouldn’t have said anything, just kept walking—a few of the seasoned hikers and road travelers she’d encountered during the past six months had advised her to do exactly that.  However, something in her always found it unconscionably rude, not to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ at the very least.

The guy remained persistent (“Come-on, baby!  I don’t bite!  Invite your friend—we’ll make it a threesome.”).  It wasn’t until Pam had actually turned her back on him and started towards the restaurant that he finally gave up and drove away, hydraulics hissing and engine dieseling as he forced the gears.

A half-hour later she was on Route 4 in the cab of a mover on its way to Maine—a United Van Lines rig driven by a solid woman in her fifties who smoked like a chimney and swore like a sailor.  They’d met in the Denny’s and hit it off with a very nice conversation, even if it did contain roughly four times the level of profanity Pam was used to.  She was pretty sure the woman (whose name she could not recall) was a dyke, but that really didn’t matter, since she was all but certain the big female trucker had concluded the same about her.

In any event, as twilight settled in and the woman rambled on about how her own mother had served in the Merchant Marine during WWII, Pam saw that same Peterbilt or another so much like it as to make no difference.  It had been pulled over by one unmarked and three New York State police cars, and the driver was spread-eagle over the hood of one of them.

Two of the officers had had their weapons drawn, too.

Now, trudging along a backcountry road in West Virginia, Pam wiped her forehead with the bandanna she kept strung through a belt-loop in her jeans.  Just a couple more miles. It felt as if the blister had begun to grow on her left heel, despite the moleskin, but she didn’t want to stop.  That old ‘one more mile-marker’ obsession…

After ten minutes more, munching on another handful of the ever-present blackberries, she heard another vehicle approaching.  Larger engine, she thought.  Bigger bore.  Well maintained. She let her mind wander.  A bunch of local boys, out for an afternoon of fishing and drinking.  Maybe hunting? Pam couldn’t be sure.

She knew she didn’t want to try to hitch a ride from them, if she was even close to being right.  That bad feeling again.

While she considered ducking into the weeds along the side of the road, despite knowing her bare arms would get torn up by the thorns of the blackberry brambles, she suddenly realized she’d badly misjudged the distance: A four-wheel drive Dodge pickup rounded a bend behind her and roared by.  Pam tried to keep her eyes straight ahead, but couldn’t help glancing, just once.

Two guys in the front seat, four more riding in the bed, they ranged in age from about fifteen to twenty-two.  The driver appeared to be the oldest.  Three of the six looked young enough that Pam wondered why they weren’t in school today.

These guys could be harmless, or even friendly, offering her a cold beer and a ride into town.  For some reason, she really didn’t feel that way.

Looking at that truck made her think of bullwhips and cross-burnings.

They continued away, out of sight around the next bend in the winding road.  Good, she thought, momentarily relieved to have been worrying for no reason.  Nevertheless, she looked for a good place to leave the road, figuring to walk in the woods for a time, just in case.

There—she saw a spot about five yards up the road, a break in the blackberry bushes lining the road.

The truck came back around the bend a moment later though, slowing as it approached.  The big Ramcharger rolled her way, chrome flashing and bright red paint gleaming, recently washed and waxed.  The only dirt on it at all crusted the edges of the fenders.  A little four-wheeling this morning, she guessed.  And it’s too late for me to avoid them. Pam raised her hand in what she hoped looked like a friendly gesture.  “Hiya,” she called in her best down-home voice.

Still, she kept walking.  The Ramcharger changed gears from reverse to drive, rolling slowly now to pace her.  She swallowed, worried.  Did she have time to make a dash to the woods?  She didn’t think so.  That’d bring them after her, sure as anything.

The driver nodded at her.  A big guy, a least two hundred pounds, he had short blond hair and dark eyes.  Probably does weight training with that kind of build, Pam thought.  Definitely about my age.

“What’cha doin’, babe?” the driver called.  “Y’know, a girl could get hurt, way out here all by her lonesome.”

“Just hiking through,” Pam answered.  I’m not looking to cause any trouble, she wanted to add, but caught herself.  It would have been exactly the wrong thing to say.  Not to mention sounding incredibly stupid.  Instead, she hitched her pack higher on her back as if to demonstrate the validity of her claim.  Then she lied, “I’m meeting a friend.”

“I think you better turn right around, sweetie-pie, and go back where you came from.  We don’t go much for your type in Wardenburg.”

My type? Pam thought.  What’s he talking about? “Excuse me?”

“Dykes,” the driver said.  “And faggots.  We’re good Christian god-fearin’ people in Wardenburg.”

Pam signed. Jeez, put on a pair of hiking boots, cut your hair short, and make the mistake of walking around without a boyfriend surgically attached to your arm, everybody assumes you’re a lesbian.  Whether it’s true or not.

Pam started to object, “But I’m—“ but stopped herself.  It wouldn’t do any good.

The boy sitting beside the driver slurred loudly, “Shit, Wallace, why don’ we take the bitch for a walk in the woods?  What’s Rush say about all them Feminazi dykes anyway?  Screw ‘em right, till they ain’t so tight.”

The others in the truck laughed at the joke.  In the back, a tall, gangly boy whooped as he fell into the bed.  His beer went flying over the side, landing near Pam, the can emptying slowly into the pale yellow dirt beside her.

Jesus, she thought.  They’re all drunk as skunks.

Her stomach turned to ice.  She didn’t need that bad feeling at all to tell her she was in a heap of trouble here.  She’d stopped walking, although didn’t realize it at the time.

The driver, Wallace, laughed along with the rest of them until he saw Pam standing there.  “You stupid bitch,” he sneered.  “Now look what you went and made Billy do.  You made him spill his beer.  I think you owe him an apology.”

“Damn straight, Wallace,” one of the others called.  “Make her say it.”

“Well, babe?” he demanded.  “You gonna apologize for what you did?”

Pam tried to weigh personal safety against outright humiliation.  She opted for what she hoped was a middle way out.  “Sorry to be a problem,” she said, not looking at the tall, blonde-haired man.  “I’ll be on my way.”

She turned then, hitched her pack up on her shoulders, and began walking back the way she came.  Just let them move on, she prayed.  Please!  Let them go away.

Pam heard someone mutter, “Shit, Wallace, that weren’t no apology.”

And then, “I think we oughta teach that uppity dyke bitch some manners.”

Two doors opened and shut.  The motor still ran, a low rumble behind her.  She kept walking, even though she already knew it was futile.

Suddenly, a hand fell on her shoulder, yanking her around.  Wallace stood there, glaring down at her with blue-and-bloodshot-red eyes.  “Where the hell you think you’re goin’?” he demanded.  “I told you to apologize to Billy.”

Looking down at the dirt and bits of tire re-tread scattered there along the side of the road, she knew she should give in, that it was the only way she might possibly get out of this awful situation.  “Sorry,” she muttered under her breath.

“What?”  Wallace jabbed her left breast with his finger.  “I don’t think Billy heard you.”

Pam looked up, meeting Wallace’s bleary, beer-addled glare.  She opened her mouth.  She said clearly, distinctly, “Fuck off, you beer-swilling Neanderthal yahoo.”

Wallace blinked several times, not believing what he just heard.  Pam was just as surprised.  Where had those words come from? She’d really meant to say, ‘I’m sorry.’

Turning away, Wallace was saying, “You goddamn fucking whore.”  He pulled back his arm and let fly a roundhouse punch.

Pam tried to duck, but too late.  His fist smashed into her left eye and cheek, sending her to the ground.  The world began to turn gray, and a queer buzzing filled her head.  Voices called from far away, “Go on Wallace!  Teach the bitch some manners!”

Should have done what they wanted, she thought.  You stupid idiot.

A pointed-toe boot gouged into her side, driving breath away.  Instinctively, she grabbed the foot, not even seeing what she was doing, and felt Wallace hit the dirt beside her.  Her vision failed in her left eye, tears flowing as it began to swell, but she could make out with her right eye where Wallace had fallen.  Apparently, he had had the breath knocked out of him, and now coughed to one side.

Pam, whooping air herself, started crawling away, toward the blackberry brushes.  Now, she no longer cared if she got all scraped up from the thorns.

Unexpectedly, someone heaved her off the ground, and she groaned as the pain in her side redoubled.  Two of the boys from the back of the truck held her between them while Wallace regained his breath.  One of them—Billy—hissed in her ear, “You’re gonna pay for that, you cunt!”

His breath reeked of beer, Slim Jims, and halitosis.

Looking up at Pam, Wallace said between coughs, “Damn right, the bitch is gonna pay.  Just hold her up so she can’t pull any more of her dirty dyke tricks.”

The two holding Pam jerked her upright, making her gasp at the pain in her side.  Ribs broken? she wondered.  Cracked? Her vision was completely gone on the left now, as she hung there suspended between the two of them.  Hands yanked at her backpack, and with a couple of quick tugs, it was gone.  The bastards cut it off, she thought.  Shit.  It’s ruined now.

Wallace got to his feet then, brushing himself off.  He glared at Pam, hate in his eyes.  And a little embarrassment.  Probably because a girl had managed to hurt him in front of his friends.

She had a sudden vision of Wallace, decked out in white robes and a high, conical hat—

“First, boys,” he said in an amused tone of voice.  “We’re gonna soften her up a bit.  Break down those mean old Feminazi defenses.  Then I’m gonna soften her up.  Where it counts.”

Wallace pulled back his fist and drove it into Pam’s stomach.  She folded between the arms holding her, retching.  Doubled-over, she saw a knee coming up.   It hit dead center in her forehead.  Like a hive of angry bees, the buzzing in her skull washed out everything else as the world went black.  The last thing she heard was someone laughing hysterically.

And the last thing she felt was her jeans being clawed down her legs.

*                            *                                 *

“What happened after that?”

Pam had mentioned all the details she thought Dave would want to know—the Dodge Ramcharger pickup, the driver, his friends, and most of the events—including the last part, which she really didn’t want to talk about, because it meant she would have to think about it, too.  But she left out some of the other things: Her “guessing game”, the insults, and the sudden vision of Wallace in robes.

“After I got hit in the head, I passed out.  But not before I knew they’d t-taken off my clothes.  The next thing I remember is waking up in your hospital.  The doctor was shining a light in my eyes.”

“Well,” Dave said, putting his notepad away.  Then, he picked up the tape recorder and hit the stop button, returning it to the right pocket of his slacks.  “It’s more a clinic than a hospital.  They’ve got about a dozen beds and one full-time nurse.”  He gave an apologetic half-smile.  “Wardenburg isn’t a very big town.

“Anyway, when Wallace and his boys brought you in, they said they found you up the road, lying in a ditch.  When I questioned them, they claimed it was most likely some boys from Dover who did it to you.”

Dover was the town Pam had passed through on her way to Wardenburg.  “No.  The only person I talked to in Dover was a clerk at a convenience store.  Young woman—in her late teens, I think.  Long brown hair.  I bought a bottle of soda.”

“Well, I don’t put much stock in what Wallace said.  You’ve no reason to lie.  On the other hand, if Wallace did what you say he did, he has every reason to be less than truthful.  Besides, you knew his name.”

“Why’d they take me to the clinic?  It doesn’t make sense.  Why didn’t they just leave me there?  After they were finished.”

“They probably would’ve,” Dave said.  “Except for the fact that one of them got a little carried away, and must’ve started banging your head on the ground.  Then, I guess some of the clearer heads in the bunch realized they could get into real trouble if you didn’t make it.  Or maybe one of ‘em still has a smidge of moral sense.  I dunno.  Whatever the case, they all told the same story, right down to the details.”

“What happens now?”  Pam rubbed her eyes with one hand—albeit gently, gingerly.  She felt dead tired.  Something about that struck her as funny.  She laughed a little.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I want them locked up.”

Dave sighed.  Pam thought she could sense his uneasiness, and a little fear.  “I thought you might say that.  Listen, things could get rather unpleasant around here.  I don’t want to talk you out of it—“

Sure you do, she thought.

“But the one who you say knocked you around—“

“Wallace,” she finished for him.

“Right,” said Dave.  “Wallace Kalenhoff.  His father nearly owns this town.  Judge Eustace P. Kalenhoff.  He’s the county justice and the Law around here. Unfortunately, even though you’ve got all the physical signs of having been sexually assaulted, they couldn’t find any traces of semen.  There’s a pretty good chance you’d get charges of vagrancy or prostitution brought up against you inst—“

“But I—“ Pam winced as sharp pain lanced through her head.

“I’m sure you didn’t do anything wrong,” Dave said quickly.  “You couldn’t have.  You didn’t even make it into town.”  He looked out into the corridor and then back again.  “Something else,” he continued.  “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way or anything, because I’m fine with it myself, but to be honest, Judge Kalenhoff has a real problem with mixed marriages—”

“But neither of my parents are black,” she interrupted.

“They’re not?”

“No, they’re both Italian,” Pam said.  “And my father’s parents came from south Italy.”

“Amatangelo,” Dave nodded.  “Of course.  Dumb of me not to see that.”  He smiled.  “You know you have a hell of a tan.”

“Thanks.  I’ve been hiking most of the summer.”

Dave looked at her over the top of his notes; he’d gotten out the pad again.  “Any particular reason?”

Pam shrugged.  “I’ve been to college.  I’m trying—I guess I don’t know what I want to do.”  She reached up to rub at her temple, but stopped when her fingers encountered the bandage.  “Hiking through the Appalachians seemed like a good idea.  I planned to stop last August—you know, go back to college—but I never got around to it.  I was enjoying myself too much.”

“Until this, of course.”

One corner of her mouth ticked up.  “Yeah, until this.”  She closed her eyes.  “So what happens now?”

“Tell you what.”  Dave stood up and reached his arms over his head, stretching his back.  His joints made loud popping noises.  “You rest here as long as you need.  As long as you want.  I’ll see to it nobody bothers you,” he said.  “I’ll get you food, magazines if you want to read, or paper if you want to write someone.  Likewise, you feel free to call anyone you need to call.  And when you’re feeling well enough to travel, I’ll give you a ride to the next town.  Or bus fare home, if you’d rather.  The next town up, Leedstown, is far enough you won’t have to worry about Wallace Kalenhoff.  Or his father.”  Dave looked down at her.  “Well, how about it?”  He sounded hopeful.

“Doesn’t sound like I have much of a choice.”

“Sure you do,” he said.  Pam was surprised to get the distinct impression Dave was calling up some hidden reserve of courage.  “If you really want to press charges, I’ll back you.  We’ll take it to Appeals if Judge Kalenhoff throws out the case.  Or tries to nail you with trumped-up charges.”

“But that might mean your job, couldn’t it?” Pam said, on a sudden intuition.

“Yeah, it might,” he sighed.  Then, he looked puzzled.  “How’d you know that?  Did I mention the Judge was town council president, too?”

“I don’t know,” Pam said quickly.  Somehow, she had known.  Maybe Dave did mention it earlier. “I guess I must’ve thought it was something judges could do.”

“Judges can’t.  But the town council can.  Anyhow,” Dave said, going on.  “If you want to press charges, I’ll back you with a statement.  We could even call in the county forensics guy, have him go over your clothes and such with a fine-toothed comb.  Maybe we’d get lucky and find some hairs or fibers or something.”

Pam thought about it for a moment, then shook her head—slowly.  “No.  That’s okay.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Okay,” Dave said.

Pam felt a surge of relief come from him.  She was confused.  What’s going on? She almost knew what Dave was feeling.  That didn’t make sense.  It felt similar to when she guessed about the cars coming toward her on the road, only a lot stronger.  And she wasn’t even trying now.

She suddenly realized Dave had been talking.  “I’m sorry,” Pam said.  “What was that?”

“I was just saying that I have to go make my rounds now.  Just drive the back roads and get bored, but most days that’s how I earn my pay,” he said.  “There’s a TV in the outer office.  Gets a couple of stations pretty good, because it’s hooked up to the radio tower.  I hate to leave you alone, but I have to take care of this and it’ll only be for a few hours.”  He hesitated.  “I check on some of the older residents, and they’re always pestering me to stay for coffee or cake.  I usually give in.  Today, I’ll try to resist.”

“What if they come looking for me?”  She was referring to Wallace and friends.

“They won’t,” Dave said.  “If it’ll make you feel better, I already told them you were gone.  Besides, you can lock the door behind me.  Nobody’ll bother you, except my wife, and she’ll be stopping by around six-thirty or so with dinner.  She’s gonna stay until I get back, give you someone to talk to, if you’re interested.  You’ll have to let her in if you do lock up, because she doesn’t have a key.”

“Okay,” Pam said, smiling and touched by his concern.  Looking up toward the tiny wire-and-glass window on the back wall of the cell, she noticed it had gotten somewhat dimmer during the time she’d been talking to Dave.  “What time is it?”

“About four, four-thirty.  You were out for nearly three hours.”  He stood up, stretching his arms again.  “Like I said, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Wallace and his friends.  Right now, I reckon they’re countin’ their lucky stars the situation didn’t turn out worse than it did.  I hear they’re back up on the ridge, hunting deer.”

“It’s not deer season.  “At least, I don’t think it is.”

“You’re right.  It ain’t,” Dave said.  “But they don’t worry about little details like that around here.  We haven’t seen a game warden in over five years.  Besides, I hear there’s a huge buck up there on the ridge.  Three, maybe three-fifty pounds, with a rack to match.  Eighteen points, some say.”  Dave grinned.  “Wallace and his boys’ll never get him, though.  They’re usually too drunk to even see the trees, much less the deer.”  He laughed a little.  “If I had an afternoon off, I might consider going after him myself.”

Pam heard envy in his voice.  She swung her legs down to the floor—during the telling of her story, she’d tucked them up under her on the chair, an old habit—and stood up carefully.  The buzzing had receded a little.  “I’ll be fine,” she said, attempting to focus her eyes on the cement floor.  “I guess it’d be nice to watch some TV.”

Dave helped her into the outer office and over to the black vinyl couch facing a small color television.  In addition to an old set of rabbit ears on top, a thick coaxial cable ran from the back of the thirteen-inch Mitsubishi toward the far wall.  Dave turned on the TV and pointed across the room toward a coffee maker.  The pot was half full.  “There’s some java if you want it—French roast, I think.  Bottled water in the little fridge there, along with half-and-half for the coffee.”

On his way to the door, he took up a leather jacket and slung it over one shoulder.  “You need anything, or start feeling bad, you just call my wife,” he said, opening the door.  Pam could see a battered police cruiser parked out front.  “The number’s on a piece of paper by the phone.  So’s the number for Doc Wilson’s answering service.”

With a final glance as if to reassure himself she’d be okay, he stepped outside and closed the door behind him.

Pam sat there in the office, devoid of thought.  The television came on slowly to a cloud of multicolored snow, through which she could make out the vague outlines of people moving around.  Deciding she didn’t really want to watch TV after all, she reached out with her foot and pushed the power button.  The canned laugh track of some unknown sitcom—it might’ve been M*A*S*H or WKRP in Cincinnati—cut off in mid-titter.

Her crotch ached when she’d extended her leg, but she really didn’t want to think about that particular injury just now, either.  The bruises on her thighs, which she’d glimpsed back at the clinic, had been altogether too telling.  No, not now.  Later maybe, but not now.

She stared at the silent television, her brow wrinkling as much as her bruises would allow.  What the hell is happening? she wondered.  How could I know what he was feeling?  Is the sheriff just the kind of guy who lets his feelings show?  Yet, the term ‘knowing’ doesn’t quite describe it either, does it?  This is something different.

You’re getting ridiculous, she told herself.  That bump on your head scrambled your brains.  Ignore it.  Think about something else.

It was confusing.  And the buzzing in her head seemed to be getting louder again.  The angry bees had become infuriated hornets.  Make that ‘wasps’—great big red-and-black mutant wasps with bloodshot eyes, and she’d kicked in their nest, insulted their mother, and questioned their masculinity.  And made them spill their beers.

Maybe I should lay down for a while.  She leaned back.  What next?  Wait a day or two and then go on to the next town?  Head back home? Laughing a little, she imagined returning home to Pittsburgh in her present condition, bruised and beaten almost beyond recognition, bandages covering her head.  And her father laughing at her from the front door.

Pam’s father had been against this hike from the start.  To put it mildly.

“Knew you’d get in trouble, Pammie,” he’d laugh, the broad expanse of his tee shirt covered beer-gut shaking like jello.  “Whatsa matter?  Get into an argument with a mean old grizzly?  Or was it a ferocious porcupine?”

Then his voice would harden, become crueler.  “How the hell’d you turn out so lousy?  You sure didn’t get it from my side of the family.  Must’ve been your mother, god-rest-her-soul, spoiling you rotten like she did all those years.  Why’d you have to go off to that no-good college anyway?  Why couldn’t you stay home?  Ain’t I good enough for ya?”

No.  No way.  I’m not going home like this, she thought.  The anger gave her strength.

Worse yet had been the way her father kept looking at her, as her body blossomed through her teenage years, especially all those summers she’d had to spend at home after Grandma had died.

She remembered the way he’d sit like a lump at the kitchen table after work, pretending to read the Post Gazette but in reality staring over the top of the newspaper at her ass as she made dinner.

The way he would stand right behind her while she did the dishes, presumably looking out the kitchen window, even though there was nothing to see in the back yard but a couple of scrub bushes, overgrown grass and weeds, and a sickly old sugar maple.

The way he just happened to need to use the toilet while she was showering, making those disgusting grunting noises as he did so.

The way he kept mentioning how lonely he’d become, ever since Pam’s mother had died, when Pam herself was only twelve.  How much he missed hugs and kisses and wanting to know why his little Pammie didn’t hug or kiss him the way she used to anymore…

No, I’m not going home, period.  It’d only be a matter of time before that son of a bitch put his hands on me.  Heaven help me for what would happen next.

And it’s too late to go back to school.  I’ll wait until I can move on, until I’m able to move on.  I can’t go home yet.  Maybe not ever.  And I sure can’t stay around here.

Pam levered herself to her feet, tottered a little, then steadied.  Okay, one step at a time. She moved carefully toward the front door and turned the knob on the deadbolt.  Then, almost aimlessly, she started toward Dave’s desk.

In the chair with no memory of having sat down, she saw the coffeepot was within reach and considered pouring herself a cup.

No.  No coffee. The thought made her stomach hitch and recoil.  Uh uh.

Pam got up and wandered down the short corridor into the cell area.  Maybe lay down for a while.

Resting once again at the open entrance to her room—her cell—she noticed the thick tongue of the lock protruding from the key-plate in the door.  Dave had left it in the ‘engaged’ position, so the door couldn’t be closed all the way without using the key again.  Through a gray haze and the angry wasps’ buzzing, Pam looked around again.  There was her pack beside the bunk, and the two prescription bottles on the sink.  She remembered that one of the bottles’ label read, “Propoxyphene NP 100MG/APAP NY #30, Generic for Darvocet-N100.”  Above that confusing jumble of letters and numbers, in far more meaningful larger print, “Dosage: Take 1 or 2 tablets every 4 hours as needed for pain.”

Lord Jesus, do I need one now.  Make that two.  Or maybe three?

She took a few steps toward the sink and stumbled, almost falling.   The buzzing grew louder, becoming a tone.  The wasps had apparently transmogrified themselves into a choir.  Pam sank to the toilet, sitting on its edge.  Take it easy, she repeated to herself, head down, bangs which needed trimming hanging in her eyes.  Take it easy.  Just go slow.

That bottle can’t be more than a foot away.  Just rest a second and then reach over and get it.  I’ll feel better after I take a couple of pain pills.

Her head filled with that single, maddening tone, crowding out thought.  It hurt.  Her head hurt.  How can I read Dave so easy?  Why are the feelings so strong?

Why can’t those fucking wasps learn another note?

Shut up.  Concentrate.  Get the bottle, take a couple and get some rest.

She was lying down now.  When did that happen?  Did I take any of the Darvocets? Pam lay on her side in the lower bunk, facing a cinderblock wall painted off-white, noticing again with a corner of her mind that it was clear of graffiti.  Dave kept his place clean.  She closed her eyes and began to doze.

Images came to her.  Flashes of raw color pin-wheeled and the monotone song in her head swelled and echoed, cycling higher and higher.  It climbed beyond hearing, leaving a hollow center of peace, the colors subsiding.

Dreaming, she thought stupidly.  I really should get up.

There, in the silent emptiness, Pam thought she could see specks of light, glimmerings in the dark that began to coalesce and rotate.  A sound returned as well, a hundred, a thousand notes, tones, and voices, all resounding in the void and yet each completely distinct.

A rotating galaxy of light swung and gyred, each point of light with its own voice.  Sections rotated around one another, and individual points traced a complex, intertwined dance.  The tones shifted and harmonized.  The center, though made up of individual points of fire, slowly blurred and became indistinct, and the voices merged to become a single sound that twisted Pam’s soul with poignant longing.  She spiraled in towards the galaxy of light and song.

White fire and a blast of impossible music filled her mind…

Suddenly it cleared, and she lay there on the bunk once more, still staring at the cinderblocks.  She was awake.  Everything was back to normal.

But not quite: The wall before her seemed strangely transparent.

Through the wall, she could see a brick building.  Then, somehow she was inside the other building, and she realized it must be a fire station.  Two middle-aged men in matching khaki slacks and red plaid shirts polished a yellow pump-ladder truck.  A beagle slept on the floor in a patch of late afternoon sunlight, next to the open garage door.

She felt the pressure of smooth metal under the hands of the men who so carefully looked after their beloved old truck, because the town didn’t have enough money to buy a new one.  Anyway, old Betsy was always reliable, and—

The beagle woke up and scratched a flea.  It felt good, scratching like that.  Almost as good as when the men did it, especially under the ears, along his jowls.  The beagle considered going over to the men.  Maybe one would scratch for him.  No, not worth the bother.  He put his head down between his paws.  Back to dreams of chasing rabbits.

Pam started.  She shook her head a little, wincing at the pain.

Nothing but blank—and very solid—wall in front of her.

You’re hallucinating, she berated herself.  Get up, damn you.  Call Dave’s wife.  Have her bring Doc Holiday, or whatever his name was, down here pronto. Or call him yourself—Dave said his number were there, too.

She lifted her head about an inch.  It fell back to the thin jail-issue pillow.  I can’t.  It’s too hard.  I’m too tired. I’ll just rest my eyes for a few minutes…

Pam felt herself falling away.  The white fire and impossible music overwhelmed her.  It was just too hard.  She let go.

What’s happening to me?  Am I dying?

*                            *                                 *

A maelstrom had her, flinging her into the darkness once more.  Bursts of reality appeared in staccato lightning flashes: A vision of the road outside.  A blast of country-rock, “—sweet home, Alabama.”  The weed-choked yard of a wooden house, filthy no-color paint peeling from all sides.  The smell of pot roast and honey-glazed carrots.  The feel of stiff cotton muslin under fingers.  Grass.  Water.  Cement sidewalks.  Cratered dirt roads.  Sandstone.  Milkweeds.  Blackberries.

Then she saw trees: Soaring oaks, groves of maple and sassafras, solitary willows.  The ground sloped away steeply here where she floated among the trees.  A squirrel chittered, climbing a large sugar maple to home up in the branches.  A long day of finding nuts, and either eating them or burying them against the winter to come.  Plenty of food today, but a deeper memory of cold and snow and ice.  For now though, contentment.  The squirrel climbed up and away.

An owl stirred in a treetop some distance away.  Opening huge yellow eyes, she noted the darkening forest.  The day had almost passed.  Soon, time to hunt.  Mice, rabbits. The owl stretched her wings, flapped twice to air and settle her feathers, and stepped from side to side.  She waited, hunger growing.

Movement ahead.  Pam felt their presence before she saw them.

She watched the herd foraging at a flat area on the steeper slope.  Seven does, three yearlings, and a young male who would be old enough to leave the herd next Spring.  The herd’s buck stood nearby, she felt, but was out of sight, guarding while the herd grazed among the leaves.

She moved within the herd.  One of the yearlings, a male, looked up at her.  He turned and came toward her, staring, his coat a glossy brown with a few remaining flecks of white.   Wanting to touch him, she didn’t know if she even had hands.  She couldn’t see herself when she looked down, therefore no idea how the deer knew she was there.

The yearling lost interest and stepped away, digging in the leaves with his hoof and nose.  He moved to forage near the largest female of the herd.  His mother, evidently.

Pam drifted toward the young buck.  This older deer had nearly three inches of antler, two straight white shafts in the middle of his forehead.  He was beginning to feel the first stirrings of the mating call.  By next Spring, the urge would become too strong to ignore and he would have to leave, driven away by this herd’s buck.  He’d have to find a herd of his own, one whose buck had died, or been slain.  Or wait until he was strong enough to fight and defeat another buck for his.

One of the other deer near him, the doe whose yearling she’d seen earlier, looked up at Pam, with something very like recognition in her gleaming brown eyes.  The deer gave a low grunt, nostrils flaring wide to catch Pam’s scent.

Pam began to feel a stirring within her stomach, pulling at her.  The pulling felt strongest near her navel, and it grew steadily.

It was a call.  She drifted toward the doe; the deer took a step toward her.

A burst of light and sound washed over her.

*                            *                                 *

When she opened her eyes, she saw slanting beams of gray sunlight on the forest floor, and a wad of leaves lay inside her mouth.  She chewed from side to side and swallowed.  Without thinking, she took a step toward a small hump of leaves. There’s sure to be something good under there.

Pam tossed her head in panic.  She had stepped with four legs.  Four legs, not two.

Now that she’d noticed, nothing looked right.  No color.  Too much depth.  Too bright for so late in the day.  Hearing too acute.  Her body was the wrong shape.  Nothing felt right.  Hands and feet were gone, and with them almost all sensitivity at the ends of her limbs.  Instead, she had cloven black hooves, spindly forelegs and a pair of thickly muscled hind legs.  A coat of thick brown fur covered her body, her snouted face.  A small white tail twitched behind her rear end.

Pam screamed, but it came out a long, high-pitched whistle.  The herd started, and all stared at her with tails high, ready to bolt.  She tried to run but tripped, because she’d attempted to move only her hind legs.

Struggling to get up, instead she merely thrashed around on the forest floor.  Her hind legs kicked at the ground, throwing clods of dirt and leaves in all directions as her hooves gouged the earth.  Help! she wanted to cry.  Oh, God!

The herd drifted away, nervous.  Her heart raced, and her breath came in gasps.  Short grunts and whistles came out of her mouth, which felt wrong, too.  Her whole body felt wrong, wrong, wrong.  Oh, God!  Help!  Let me out of here!

Something rose within her, took control.

Her body ceased its struggling.  In a minute, her heart slowed to normal, as did her breathing.  Pam fought it blindly, crying silently, Help!  Let me out!

She tried to get out, to somehow climb out of the deer’s body, but the presence held her.  It pulled her legs underneath, braced hooves on earth and levered the complicated, unfamiliar body to stand, looking around to see if anything other than the herd had noticed her.

Nothing.  *Good.*

It made her take a few steps forward and paw away that small heap of leaves.  There were indeed some succulent young plants beneath; sprouts from seeds dropped by a nearby maple.  She pulled up the tender shoots with her teeth and chewed.  The leaves tasted tangy.  She felt better, eating like that.  Eating calmed her.

She tried to withdraw again.  *No,* the presence told her.  *Stay.  We are One.*

It held her there, eating and chewing until Pam’s panic began to recede.  Feeling herself settling into the new body, at first she resisted, but before long the urge to do so began to fade.

Now calm enough to examine her body without terror threatening to consume her, the presence within guided.  Her powerful legs and thick winter coat, the tail which had so surprised her.  She twitched it then, saw it move.

Pam would have laughed if she’d been able.  Instead, all that came out was a small grunt.

The long, mobile ears on top of her head heard the smallest noises, locating them instantly.  Over there, she thought.  She saw the source of the rustling: A chipmunk.   Everything appeared in shades of gray, no color, yet she could make out every detail, even the whiskers on the chipmunk.  The small animal ran off.

She looked up through the trees.  The sun just set behind the ridge, but she could still see very well.  With her normal eyes, she realized, it would be quite dark among the trees.  For now, she could see fine, although she noticed her attention always focused on motion, almost automatically.  In an instant, she noticed a leaf falling, or a bird hopping along the ground, without thinking about it.

Trying to focus on her nose, she failed.  All she could see was a dark blur.  Anything, even her own back, when she turned her long neck around to look at it, wouldn’t come into focus if it was closer than about a foot.  Guess these eyes are only good for distance, she thought.

She looked toward the young buck then, and felt a tiny mating urge, this time as her own.  It felt good—powerful, yet quiescent, for this was neither the season nor was it that male’s place to mount her.

The presence within her was still there, waiting.  Traces of thought came to her, and she realized it had to be the young doe herself.  Pam understood now—they shared a single body.  The deer inside her said, *Come.*

A mind touched her.  Instinct and knowledge merged, and became One.

When it was over, she stood still for a moment, chewed and swallowed.  For the first time, it felt completely natural.  Moving toward the rest of the Does, a few looked up at her, then continued to forage.  The largest of the females looked hard and long at her, before finally turning away.

Pam reached out herself, and pulled some bark from a young sapling with her teeth, watching carefully the woods around the Herd as she chewed.

The forest grew darker with the passing of day.  Before long, it would be time to move down to the valley, to feed in the cornfields at night.

Something moved closer.  A powerful body pushed through the brush at one side of the level area.  She looked and saw the Buck, coming through the bushes.  He must be the one Dave talked about, she thought.  My god, he’s huge.

A tremendous animal, weighing at least four hundred pounds, he looked as big as a horse.  His antlers spanned well over three feet across.  The Buck gave several low grunts and the Herd began to pull closer together.  Pam stood there, not entirely sure what she should do.  Don’t think.  Just go with them, she thought, moving to follow the others.

Suddenly, the Buck stood between her and the rest of the Herd.  Pam looked up.  Uh oh…

Dark eyes stared into her.  *What are you?* a voice or feeling drilled into her head.  She took a step backward, but the Buck stayed with her.  *What are you?* the voice demanded.  *You are not what you were.*

“I’m—“ she started to say, but only a grunt came out.  Instinct arose once more.  *I’m Pam—Pam Amatangelo.  I’m—or I used to be—a human.*

The Buck pawed the ground.  *You must leave.*

*I can’t,* Pam said.  *I don’t think I could leave if I wanted to.  I’m not just the old me anymore.  I’m Deer and Human.  Neither.  Both.  We’re all tangled up in here now.*

The large animal stared at her for a long time.  *You are the One,* the Buck said finally.

*I don’t understand.  I don’t understand any of this.*

*You are the One foretold,* the Buck said, still staring into Pam.  *The One who will serve us.*

*What?*

*You are the One promised to us, in ages past.*

*I still don’t understand.  What are you talking about?  This doesn’t make any sense.*

*We, like all creatures, have minds,* the Buck said. *Some are simple, other complex.  The Humans have not looked.  Or rather they knew once, back in the days when their Dogs were still mostly Wolf, but have since forgotten.* The Buck pawed the ground again. *We pass knowledge from generation to generation.  Stories.  Legends.*

Pam searched her memory and realized she somehow already knew what he meant.  She remembered the story of the brave Doe who drowned saving her Fawn.  A tale of Wolves, and the fierce, angry Buck who fought an entire pack until he died.  Tales of Humans, first as creatures that threw rocks at Deer in the distant past.  And over the generations, the things Humans threw at Deer became more deadly, more accurate.

*Our oldest legend tells of the coming of a human who is not Human.  But neither will she be Deer.  She will be both.  She will be One.  It is said she will serve us.  Rule us.  And protect us from the Humans.*

*I never heard that one,* she said.  *Not even before the Human part of me came.*

*It is a tale we tell to each Buck in the autumn after his first mating, and each Doe, in the springtime after her first foaling. Your time had not come yet.* He paused to look around; like her, he must’ve heard the noises lower on the hill, too.  *Move,* the Buck said, giving a low, long grunt, a sort of wheeze.  *Take your place now.  We must leave.*

Wanting to ask what that meant, she suddenly realized what she should do.  An image came from the Buck; she saw herself watching toward the front of the Herd, guarding against danger.  She started around the Herd, gaining confidence as she took careful steps.  Moving into the brush, she tried to be quiet.  Instinct guided her.

She knew the Herd was moving behind her and a little to the right, up the ridge.  The Buck and the largest of the Does, who she realized was predominant among the females, guided the Herd, choosing their path.  Pam altered her direction slightly to stay just ahead of them.  Her hind legs pushed her up the steep hill as forelegs dug in.  It felt good.

Suddenly, she heard an explosion behind her but higher on the slope, and a shout.  Gunshot! she realized.  Then, she heard the scream of a Doe.  “I got the bitch!” came a second shout.

She turned back and ran toward the voices.  Distract them, she thought.  Give the Herd a chance to run.

More gunshots echoed in the trees, rifles cracking as well as the louder, deafening booms of shotguns.  The Herd streamed around her, past her as she galloped.  She saw the Buck, flashing by.  *Fool!* the voice in her head berated.  *Run! *

*Run!* the lead Doe echoed.

Pam ignored the command.  *Protect them.*

In moments, the sounds of the Herd’s passing were far behind her.  She heard a human voice ahead.  “Nailed one of ‘em, anyway,” it said.

“Yeah, but I missed that big buck again,” another voice said.  “He’s too damned sneaky.  I’d give anything to nail ‘im.”

“It’ll happen,” a third voice said.  “But I’m the one who’s gonna get ‘im, Milton.  Don’t you forget it.”

The last voice sounded familiar, she realized.  She moved closer, choosing her steps carefully, lifting and planting one hoof at a time.

Then, she saw them: Wallace, the tall, gangly kid named Billy, and two others, one of them presumably named ‘Milton’.  All had guns cradled in their arms—shotguns and rifles alike.  The one with the bad breath, the one who’d called her ‘cunt’ earlier, didn’t appear to be present, nor was the other drunken boy who’d been sitting next to Wallace in the cab of the Dodge.

The corpse of the Doe, one of the smaller females, in only her second foaling, lay at their feet, the lead slug having passed right through her neck.  The Doe’s tongue, where it protruded from her mouth, was slicked with blood and her eyes stared lifelessly at nothing.

Billy prodded her with his foot, as if not certain she was dead.

Pam stayed hidden in the brush.

“C’mon, Billy,” Wallace was saying.  “You bagged ‘er, you gut ‘er.”

He pulled a knife from his belt and threw it at the Doe.  It struck between her ribs, blood welling around the blade.

Pam watched with horror, but felt a stirring of rage in her stomach.  Behind her, the tail twitched and her haunches shivered.

“I ain’t never gutted a deer before,” Billy said.  “S’pose I mess it up?”

“C’mon, Billy,” one of the others said—it was Milton.  “Just cut ‘er open and pull out everything you kin get your hands on.  S’easy.”

“Do it, Billy,” Wallace said.

Billy reached down and yanked the knife from the side of the Doe as the two others pulled her legs up and spread them to either side, exposing a soft white belly.  He stood over the center of her stomach, the point of the knife touching.

“C’mon,” the boy at her forelegs said.  “We ain’t got all day.  S’almost dark.”

“Y’know, Milton,” Wallace said to the one at the other end, holding the hind legs.  “Seein’ you there, I can’t help but think it’s the closest you’ll ever get to bein’ between a girl’s legs.  You was too chicken earlier to even look at that scaggy dyke bitch when we had ‘er pants off.”

“Yeah, well, I was just thinkin’ bout what might happen if someone’d seen us,” Milton said, embarrassed and dejected.  “I mean, I don’t think Sheriff Bartlett—“

“Sheriff Fucking Bartlett is nothin’ but a coffee swillin’, donut munchin’, backcountry pig,” Wallace interrupted.  “If you hadn’t started carryin’ on about the blood on the road and hearin’ cars that never came, at least I coulda finished what I started.  And why I let you talk me into takin’ her to the clinic, Milton, I still don’t know.  Now I got me a case of blue balls so bad, I’m thinkin’ about calling Easy Lizzy when we get back tonight.  She ain’t much to look at, but man what she can do with that tongue of hers!”

They all laughed then, even Milton.

“Okay, Billy,”  Wallace said, still laughing.  “Git on with it.  Bobby—you’ll be wantin’ to hold them forelegs a bit higher.”

No, Pam thought.  I will not let this happen.

With a roar, she burst from the brush and, in a single leap, landed among them.  She head-butted Milton, who fell away, clutching his chest.  Pam kicked at the other one—Bobby—and felt contact, hearing a groan and then yelling as he, too, rolled down the hill.

Billy cried to one side, “My arm’s broke…the sombitch stomped on me…my arm’s broke.”

Pam turned a little and kicked backward, knocking the Doe’s body over the edge of the flattened area.  It fell, tumbling down the slope.  Coming around for the last one, Wallace, she was ready to run him into a tree or off the hill.  Either way, she wanted to hurt him bad.  She gathered herself to leap.

In that instant, a smile spread across Wallace’s face as he whipped his rifle around and brought it to bear, aimed directly at her, point-blank range.  Then came a deafening Crack!

A flash of light.  Burning in her head.  The world went black.  She felt her body spasm as it flew through the air, crashing into something that shouted and gave way.

*                            *                                 *

Pam screamed.  She couldn’t see anything.  Rolling over, she tried to get up, pushing with her forelegs.  Everything felt wrong.  Her forelegs flexed in unexpected ways, and she fell to the floor, banging her cheekbone on the concrete floor.

She stayed there for a few minutes, regaining her breath.  Her eyes open now, she saw a little light coming from the direction of the outer office.  Looking down at herself, she thought, A Human again.  God, what a dream.

The wasp tabernacle choir was back, and her entire body hurt, especially her head.

She pushed herself to her feet.  It felt wrong, having two legs again, and it was difficult to keep her balance.  This wasn’t right at all.  Somehow, the strange dream still had a hold on her.

Looking for light and finding it, she started toward the outer office.  Then, in the dim room, she saw that nothing had changed.  Fully dark outside, the source of illumination was a small halogen desk lamp, perched among a clutter of papers on Dave’s desk.  Making her way there, she sat down.  A small red glowing spot to the right caught her attention.  With an effort, she blinked to clear her eyes and saw it was the illuminated switch of the coffee machine.  Struggling to think despite the buzzing, she reached to pour herself a cup.

Her hands wouldn’t quite obey her.  She had to concentrate.  It felt weird, picking things up with her hands.  She felt she ought to be using her mouth.

Coffee in hand, she sat back in the chair.  Sitting was strange, too; she wanted to curl up on the floor, arms and legs beneath her.

She stared at the digital clock on the desk, next to the lamp: 9:04 PM.  It took her until 9:06 PM to decipher the numbers, and 9:10 PM to understand the full import of what they meant.  If Dave’s wife had come with dinner, Pam realized, she wouldn’t have heard her.  And Dave himself ought to be back any time now.

This has gone too far, she thought.  I’m walking along, minding my own business.  Then I get the shit beaten out of me.  And raped.  Then I start hallucinating.  I’m going back to the hospital in the morning.  Or maybe I should get Dave to drive me over tonight.

Thinking vaguely about returning home, she realized she didn’t want to go there either.  She didn’t want to go anywhere.  She wanted the Woods.

A thought arose within her.  *We are One.*

The buzzing tone intensified and then receded, leaving a clear space in her mind.  I’ll bet they’re still up on the ridge.

Suddenly, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.  She put the coffee down.

Glancing around, searching, she started to pull open the desk drawers.  The top one contained paper, pencils, assorted junk.  In the left drawer were more papers, forms, and staples.  The bottom drawer had a lock.

Pam rummaged around in the top drawer, felt under the plastic storage tray in front and found what she was looking for: A key.

She put the key into the lock.  It fit, of course.  Opening the drawer, she looked inside.  On one side rested two badges.  Deputies? she wondered.  On the other side, there were two guns and a box of ammunition.  She pulled out one of the guns, loaded it.  Then she put the box of bullets away, locked the drawer, and returned the key to its place.

Pam walked purposefully to the front door, threw the deadbolt, and went out into the night.

Within three or four blocks, she’d removed her tee shirt and sneakers, leaving them on the front steps of a hardware store.  The night air felt good on her skin, bracing and cool across her bare breasts.  She considered taking off her jeans, too, but something decided her against it.  Too much trouble.  Anyway, the waistband of her jeans was a convenient place to carry the gun.

At the far end of town, past the last of the wood-frame houses, where the woods began, she settled herself in to wait, hoping she wasn’t too late.  She knew where she was; her new memory spoke to her:  On the other side of the road, the terrain rose steeply, up to a ridge.  Behind that ridge was another one, the place where the Deer had been.

She assumed that after gutting and cleaning the Doe’s body, perhaps both bodies, if they’d found hers as well, they’d come back down this way.  A trail up led over a saddle in the ridge, a fairly easy route.  The end of the trail, where they would emerge, came out directly across the road.

Pam would wait until they came down the hill with the bodies of the Deer, listen to them laugh.  Then, she would let them know what it had been like to die.

She waited, crouched on all fours in the bushes.

After nearly twenty minutes, she heard voices on the ridge, coming slowly toward her.  Soon, she could make out what they were saying.  “Watch your step there,” Wallace’s voice said.  “Mind your arm, Billy.”

“I still say it’s broke,” Billy whined.  “Why do I have to help carry these deer?”

“It ain’t broken, ‘cause otherwise you wouldn’t be able to move it,” Wallace said.  “Besides, I have to keep guard.”

“Against what?” someone else said.  “More killer deer?”

Pam heard some nervous laughter.  “I’m serious,” Wallace said.  “That deer was weird.  Like it knew something.  I dunno, maybe it had rabies.  Anyhow, I think I cracked a rib, and I’m sick of fighting this ridge.  A half-hour walk to get back any other day, even with two deer, and look how long it took us.  Nearly two hours.  Too damn long.”

The voices sounded very close.  They should be coming out soon, Pam thought.

Lifting her palms from the ground where they had been resting, she brushed them off and pulled out the gun.  She cocked the hammer and aimed at the place where they would emerge, between a juniper and a large sideways-leaning pine tree.

A few more sounds, some crashing as brush was pushed aside, and there they were.  Hardly seeing them as more than shadows, she nevertheless raised the gun and took aim at the figure in front, the one with the rifle in his hands.  He would be Wallace.

She pulled the trigger.  There was an explosion and the gun kicked out of her hands.  The flame that erupted from the barrel blinded her.  The gun was gone, and she couldn’t see. She’d also been knocked flat onto her ass.   Shit, I didn’t hold it hard enough, she cursed.  Can’t seem to use my hands right.

A shout: “Jesuschrist!  I’m hit!”

“You okay?” someone said, very afraid.  It sounded like Billy.

“Shit no!” Wallace said.  “They got me in the arm, you asshole!  Get ‘em, dammit!”

Pam heard two thuds as carcasses were dropped.  Her vision slowly returned; she made out two or three figures pointing rifles in her general direction.  *Run!*

She leapt to her feet, bounded out of the brush and took off down the road, running back toward the Sheriff’s office.  Shots thundered, and she felt a tug in her left thigh.  She kept running, her bare feet slapping on the rough asphalt.

“It’s that girl!  Lookit her,” one of the others called.  “She ain’t got no shirt on.  Like a fuckin’ Amazon or somethin’!”

“I don’t give a holy shit if she’s buck naked,” grated Wallace.  “I’m gonna kill that stupid cunt if it’s the last thing I do.”

The tugging began to burn, and wetness trickled down her leg.  I’ve been hit, she realized, though the thought was distant.  The pain of the wound grew steadily.

After about a hundred yards, her thigh suddenly cramped and sent her sprawling.  She heard shouts, the sound of boots drumming a tattoo upon the pavement.  Far behind, a shout: “There she is!  Git her!”

She pulled herself to her feet again, left the street and staggered between two houses, dragging the leg which had almost become dead weight.  Her jeans were soaked with blood.  So much for my spare pair, she thought pointlessly.

Behind the houses, she headed to the right, back again toward the Sheriff’s office.  She heard more shouts.  “You check out the yards, Bobby!  I’ll stay in the street!”

“We’ll flush her out!”

“Billy, you stay with Wallace, keep an eye on him.  Don’t be afraid to shoot if you have to.  But for chrissake, don’t shoot us!”

Pam pushed herself away from the railroad-tie retaining wall where she had been resting and moved on.  Someone moved nearby, perhaps only twenty yards away.  Must be ‘Bobby,’ she thought.

She turned and ran, angling for the space between this house and the next.  Abruptly, Pam tripped over the corner of a step at the back porch and went down again.  From between clenched teeth, she cried out at the twin agony, the burning in her leg and the stabbing in her forehead as both hit the ground.  The angry buzzing returned, redoubled, now a hurricane howl.

“Over here!” Bobby called.  “I found her!”

Another explosion.  Something hummed past Pam’s head, hit the dirt before her.  She lunged to her feet, pulling herself as quickly as she could toward the back of the next house.  A second shot rang out, missing her again.  Rounding the corner of the house, Pam stumbled toward the road.  Behind her, a porch light came on.  More shouts—older, frightened voices demanding to know what in Sam Hill was going on.

Should she turn back, seek sanctuary?  No.  A strong instinct told her that people—humans—were not to be trusted.

Lit by the yellow-orange mercury vapor streetlights, she saw two shadows, close together, and coming towards her:  Billy supporting Wallace.  “We gotta get that crazy bitch, and we gotta do it before she kills somebody,” the latter was saying.

The irony of his statement wasn’t lost on her, and she laughed bitterly.  Pam could see no sign of the remaining boy, the one who said he’d take the street.

I’m gonna have to take a chance, she thought.  A chance on the fact that Billy will have to set Wallace down, pick up his rifle, aim and fire.  And I’ll bet he’s scared shitless, which doesn’t hurt either.

She ran, staggering from the corner of the house, back into the street.  As she left the sidewalk, the shouts began again.

“There she is, Wallace!  There she is!”

“Goddamn it!  You’re hurting me!”

She ran on, and at least ten seconds passed before another shot rang out.  By that time, she reached a side street on the right and started down it, stumbling and nearly going down every few steps.

Pam continued on until she heard a voice ahead.  “Hang on!  I’m coming!”

Seeing the remaining boy coming up the street toward her, she despaired.  I am so fucked…

She pulled herself off the road, between two houses.  In the dark space between them, she collapsed, gasping, and dropped her head to the grass.  The whole lower half of her wounded leg tingled, as if asleep.  It’s too much, she thought.

*Again,* came a small voice inside, sounding nearly as weary as her own.

The shouts continued, albeit muffled now.  She didn’t bother to try to make them out.  They seemed to be getting closer, though, as if it mattered anymore.

Still lying there a minute later, she heard, or rather felt, something coming toward her.  Pam lifted her head.  Might as well meet Death, look it between the eyes before I go.  It’s all I have left, that last small shred of dignity.

The Buck moved slowly, slipping silently along the back of the next house over.  Antlers gleaming gold in the faint illumination reflecting from the streetlights, his coat shining, he stood in the yard between the wood-frame houses only a short distance away.  *Come,* the Buck said.

“I can’t,” Pam said.  “I’m dying.  Don’t you understand?  They’re going to kill me.”

*Come,* the Buck repeated.

“I can’t,” she repeated, her face to the ground.  “It’s all over.”

*No, not over.* The Buck stepped closer. *This is how it begins.*

She remained where she lay, wanting to cry.

*Come.*

She felt the force of the command.  Somehow, she climbed to her feet, stumbled over to the Buck.  Once there, strength left her again and she sagged, catching at his neck for support.  “I can’t,” she said into fur, blood loss and the powerful musk both conspiring to make her dizzy.  “I can’t make it.”

*Mount,* the voice said.

“What?” she whispered, even though she had heard.

*Mount.*

Summoning reserves she didn’t know she had, Pam hauled herself onto the Buck’s wide back.  The blood soaking her jeans stained the fur darker brown in the mercury-vapor light.

*Hold on.*

Slouching forward, Pam put her arms around the Buck’s neck, buried her fingers in his soft pelt.  The deer took off, away between the houses.  Air whipped past her face as they hurtled along, running among the back yards and gardens, through vacant and brush-filled lots.

*I will not permit this ending.  Not after waiting so long.*

The Buck veered to the right, shot between two buildings and into the street. Turning right again, they galloped, hooves knocking on the pavement.  Over the noise, Pam thought she could hear a siren, faint with the distance but growing louder.

In front of them walked Billy and Wallace, leaning upon one another like a pair of lovers.  “Jesuschrist!” Wallace shouted. “Get ‘im!”

The younger boy stood there frozen, eyes wide, stricken with terror.  Pam and the Buck came upon them fast.  Wallace shrieked, “Shoot ‘em!  Shoot ‘em both!”

Billy didn’t even look as they flew by within inches.  Wallace slammed to the ground as the Buck’s chest hit him straight on.  Then, the two were left behind as Billy finally found his voice, although it was only a squeak.  “Help!  Please, oh God, help!”

The Buck ran on; Pam grew weaker.  Her hands and feet felt frozen, the ice creeping slowly up her limbs as inexorably as frostbite.  “I’m not going to last much longer,” she said, the wasp-buzzing in her head also on the rise.  Grayness came slowly across her vision, blurring the edges first.  “I think I’m going to fall off.”

*When you are ready*

“You don’t understand,” she whispered.  “I’m dying.  It’s over.  The end.”

*It is you who do not understand.  But you will.  She waits.*

They cantered down the street, back toward the ridge, hooves clacking loudly.

At the bottom of the trail stood two more figures, near the place where the deer carcasses had been dropped.  One of them was saying, “I told you so Pat.  I told you they must’ve got something while we were waiting up on the ridge.  But you wanted to stay—”

“But why would they leave these—Holy shit!” the other shouted.

The Buck ran by them, turned left and onto the trail.  Behind, Pam heard still more shouts.  Then, she heard several gunshots.  Finally, there was near silence, just the sounds of the Buck laboring on the steep trail, panting as he pulled the two of them up the hill.

The grayness covered most of Pam’s vision now; the wasp-buzzing had cycled up again into a tone that deafened and drowned out all thought.  “I can’t hang on much longer,” she whispered.

*You do not have to.* The Buck continued to pull them up the ridge.

*I’m going to let go now.*

*Good.*

She slumped, her arms releasing the Buck’s neck.  Her body dropped away to one side.

A burst of light and music washed over her as she fell.

*                            *                                 *

In the Sheriff’s office, Dave Bartlett paced before the row of dirty, wounded, and scared boys and young men sitting on the black vinyl couch.

Now well past 1:00 AM according to the digital clock on his desk, he debated whether to go to the trouble of calling all their parents to come get them tonight, or just lock them all up until morning.  Dave himself had spent the past couple of hours fielding phone calls from people who’d heard the gunfire and shouting.  The result was a stiff neck and a throbbing ache that covered most of his forehead.

Doc Wilson had tended to Wallace Kalenhoff’s injuries, the shallow flesh wound to his upper right arm was cleaned and bandaged.  According to the old doctor, Wallace’s ribs were just badly bruised, although he’d need X-rays in the morning to be certain

Wallace would heal.  He’d be hurting for a few days, but he’d heal.

Pam Amatangelo had had no such chance.

“What in the name of all that’s holy am I going to do with you boys?” he said.

“You could just—“ began Billy Temple.

“Shut up, Billy,” said Wallace.  “He wasn’t expectin’ an answer.”  He winced at the pain in his chest.

“Maybe I was,” Dave said.  “You boys are in about as much trouble as you can get,” he added, staring at Wallace.  “Even you Wallace, and I don’t care who your father is.  I won’t have it said that I let a bunch of suspected killers walk.”

Wallace stared back, unbelieving.  Dave sat on a corner of his desk.  He took out the small pocket tape-recorder, started it to running and set it on the desk, next to his leg.  “Now then,” he said wearily.  “I done already told you your rights, but you chose to waive ‘em.  Still, I’ll tell them to you again, for the record.”

Dave read them their Miranda rights from laminated card he kept in his shirt pocket, got all of them to say aloud they understood but waived those rights.  He knew it mostly wouldn’t hold up in court anyway, them all being minors, except for Wallace.  Still, keeping up appearances never hurt.  And for Wallace, it did matter, because he was of age.  Putting the card away, Dave said, “Now suppose you tell me your story again.”

“Well, we—“

“Shut up, Billy,” Wallace said again.  “We told you the truth, Sheriff.  We were huntin’.  We bagged this one deer, a doe, and then this other deer attacked us.  Another doe.  Must’ve been crazy.  Rabies maybe.  I ain’t gonna eat any of its meat, that’s for sure.”

Then why’d you bother to haul it all the way down from the ridge, Dave wanted to know, but refrained from asking.

“We all got pretty banged up by that second doe,” the young man continued.  “’Cept for Pat and Eric, ‘cause they was still up on the ridge, waiting for the rest of us.”   Dave crossed his arms, took a sip of coffee, and said nothing.  Wallace went on, “Then we came out on the street and that crazy bit—uh, I mean that girl shot at us.  At me.”  He pointed at the bandage on his arm.  “Hit me, too.  So, we chased ‘er, and we was gonna catch ‘er.”

You mean kill her, Dave thought.

“Well, the warning shots got a bit out of hand” Wallace said.  “And I think we must’ve hit ‘er, sorry to say.  Then we chased ‘er all over the place.  And then—“  His voice trailed off in embarrassment.

“Go on,” Dave said, sighing.  “What happened next?”  He already knew what was coming, having heard it in different versions twice already, but he had to make himself listen to their statements again.  Evidence was evidence.

“Well, uh,” Wallace said, looking to the cement floor.  “We saw the huge buck, the one with the rack.  He came right at Billy and me.”  His voice was trailing off.  “And he knocked me down and ran right past Billy…”

“And?”  He waiting to hear if the Judge’s son would repeat the same nonsense he’d been spouting earlier.

“Sheriff,” said Wallace, earnestly.  “I swear to God, I mean I really swear to God, I saw that girl riding that buck, just like it was a horse.”

“I saw it too!” Billy said.  “I saw her!  The girl was riding the deer.  And she wasn’t wearin’ a shirt or nothin’!  You ain’t never seen the like!”

Dave looked up at the ceiling.  “Sweet Jesus,” he muttered under his breath.  They expect me to believe this shit.

“Pat and Eric saw ‘er, too,” Wallace said.  “While they was at the bottom of the trail, where we dropped the two deer.  They both saw that buck.  And the girl on top of ‘im.”

Pat and Eric were nodding, wide-eyed and serious when he looked.  “Boys,” he said.  “You know what I think happened?”

No one said anything.

“I think you probably did get banged up by that doe up on the ridge.  I know how deer can turn crazy sometimes.  And I think when you came back, you saw Ms. Amatangelo walking around town.  I told her to stay put, but she must’ve decided to get some fresh air.  You fellows probably thought she was in town to press charges.  You decided to get rid of her.  Then, in all the gunfire and confusion, you managed to get yourself shot, Wallace.  If we’d found the bullet that creased your arm, Wallace, I’d lay a month—no, a year’s salary it came from one of your guns.

“I just happened to come along before you boys could dream up a story that didn’t sound like a goddamn fairy tale!”

He paused, drank a little coffee and stared at each boy in turn.  None would meet his gaze, not that he expected they would.  Dave Bartlett was not generally known to be a man who often lost his temper, therefore on those rare occasions he did, it was noticed.  “Her body was only a little way up the ridge trail.  She must’ve been trying to run away.  And for your information, she was unarmed.”  He knew he was telling them things he oughtn’t, but he was also tired and angry beyond forbearance.  Moreover, his headache was getting worse.  “I’m going to call for an ambulance in the morning so we can do a full autopsy up in Winchester.”  He stared pointedly at Wallace.  “And a full forensics analysis of her body and clothing.”

“But that’s not—“

“No way—“

“I didn’t—“

“Shut up,” Dave grated between clenched teeth.

They did.

“I’ve made up my mind,” he said.  “You boys are going to spend some time in jail.  You’re gonna wait in a cell while I call each of your parents to come for you.  When they get here, I’ll tell them in great detail about the charges that I intend to bring up on each and every one of you.  Then, I’ll let them bail you out.  Assuming they want to.”

They all looked stricken, with one exception: the big young man, who only appeared somewhat concerned, but no more.  “Don’t think you’re going to get off this time, Wallace,” said Dave, eyes narrowed.  “I’ll push this one past your daddy if I have to.  I’ll be damned if I’ll let a suspected murderer get off scot-free.  And I think your father will agree with me for once.”

Wallace dropped his gaze to the floor, perhaps a little ashamed, finally.  In a moment, Dave was herding them all down the corridor to the cells.  The backpack still lay near the bunk in the first cell where Dave had left it, but the blanket was mussed as if Pam had lain upon it for a while.

He pushed them past Pam’s cell, locked them all in the second, ignoring protests for phone calls and pleas for forgiveness.  He walked back toward his office, slamming shut the door to the cell area.

Sitting there for a minute, the Sheriff of Wardenburg sipped coffee gone cold and grimaced at his now full-fledged migraine.  On a hunch, he opened his top drawer, retrieved the key and unlocked the bottom drawer.  He looked inside.  Two badges, one gun.  And the box of ammunition lying crooked, like it had been dropped in.

Shit, he thought sadly.  Looks like she did go after them.  Why?

Dumb question.  He knew exactly why she might’ve gone after them.

Thankfully, he’d only had to deal with two other sexual assaults during his tenure as lawman, one of them a domestic—a wife who’d said ‘no’, and a husband who felt that screwing was his right and her duty.  The same look had been there in the eyes of all three women: The wife, that high school girl, SueAnn, who’d been date-raped and then ostracized into leaving the county, and finally Ms. Pamela Christine Amatangelo.

That haunted, hunted look.  It was a wonder more women didn’t take up guns and carving knives.

He’d been concerned about Ms. Amatangelo, and worried now perhaps he hadn’t been nearly concerned enough.  Dave re-locked the drawer, put the key away, and thought for a while longer.

It seemed odd.  His wife told him that when she dropped by at seven o’clock, the door was locked and no one answered her knocking.  Darlene figured the poor girl was asleep, and left a note on the door to give her a call when she wanted dinner.

Pam couldn’t have re-locked it from the outside, Dave figured.  That required the key, which the young woman didn’t have.  So she didn’t leave the building until sometime between seven o’clock and nine-thirty.  Must’ve been sleeping, Dave thought.  Then woke up—from a nightmare, I’d bet.  Found the gun.  Decided she couldn’t let him get away with what he’d done to her.

Finally, he said to no one in particular, “Damn.  Maybe I can at least get him on manslaughter.”

He picked up the phone and began dialing.

*                            *                                 *

In the months that followed, Dave had his hands full, even with Wallace Kalenhoff generally staying out of trouble.  The two-to-five year sentence, although suspended, appeared to have shaken him up a bit.  Some of the difference might have been due to the fact that Wallace’s probation officer in Dover was known to be a real hard-ass.

The autopsy and ballistics tests submitted as evidence at the trial clearly showed that the bullet in Pam Amatangelo’s leg had come from Wallace’s gun.  And the head injury contributing to the young woman’s death, the brain hemorrhage the autopsy discovered, had been entirely Wallace’s doing.  Or at least, that was what two of Wallace’s friends (now former friends, of course) had testified at the trial.

Dave didn’t entirely believe this last point, but he felt willing to let things slide a little, if only for Pam’s sake.

Surprisingly, Judge Eustace P. Kalenhoff hadn’t complained or threatened Dave’s job.  He even disqualified himself from the case preliminaries.  Maybe the Judge was sick of his kid, too? Dave wondered.  A more cynical part of him opined, Or more likely he just knew he couldn’t interfere without jeopardizing both his political and judicial careers. Bad enough, a son accused and convicted of manslaughter, it would have been far worse if the phrase ‘conflict of interest’ ever became connected to the Kalenhoff name.

Although the remaining boys in Wallace’s gang were more or less behaving themselves as well, other things were happening.  Weird things.

The trail up to the ridge was almost always blocked nowadays, and simply too much trouble to climb.  Downed trees, huge rocks in the way, and loose, treacherous places in the trail.

Lots of folks had accidents up on the ridge.  Tree roots, when used for handholds, suddenly came out of the ground.  There were constant rockslides and all those dangerous places on the trail where one slip could send you tumbling back down the mountain.  No, Dave thought.  Too much trouble to go up there. Hunting on the ridge had become lousy anyway.

There were the traps, too.  Dave had no trouble figuring who they belonged to, because all traps by law had to be tagged, but the half-dozen trappers in the area all denied any knowledge of what was happening.  To a man, they’d claimed someone, maybe high school kids, must be stealing them.

The strange part though was the traps turned up in the damnedest places:  On front porches.  In people’s gardens and lawns. In the middle of the high school football field.  The situation was getting ridiculous; people were hurting themselves on the things.  Everyone wanted Dave to do something about them.  He had even heard talk that the Town Council was thinking of banning traps throughout the entire county.

Fine with me, Dave thought.  He’d stepped on one himself not long ago out at the Hempford farm and limped around for a week with a sprained ankle.

Then, last week, the barn at the Temple place burned down.

It might’ve been an accident, since a kerosene lantern was determined to have set off the fire, and such might simply had been knocked over by one of the animals or a rat or something.  However, the insurance investigators also found an empty gasoline can there, on the floor under the soot-stained beams and rubble, with seven or eight half-inch holes poked in it.  They also found deer tracks all over the place.

That was rather odd because no one in the entire county had gotten a deer all season.  Or seen one, for that matter.

All the cows and horses, normally kept in the barn at night, were later found in an adjacent pasture.  No one had an explanation.  Nobody knew how the animals could have gotten out and away.  None of the Temple family had gotten anywhere near the barn during the fire, and they always kept the doors latched, they claimed, and likewise the gate to the nearby pasture.  John and Edna Temple testified they’d no idea who might be angry with them, angry enough that they’d burn down a barn and yet not angry enough to let the livestock perish as well.

Not that it really mattered.  The ruling of cause for the fire was still arson, no matter how you spelled it.  The insurance company refused to pay for damages until the culprit had been found and apprehended.

Who might’ve set the fire?  Well, Billy Temple still acted peculiar these days, continuing to babble about that girl-riding-a-deer story, after all the other boys had long since given it up.

He’d gotten so hysterical after the fire that the doctors had had to sedate him.  He kept ranting on about two huge deer he said he saw from his bedroom window the night of the fire.  A buck and a doe, both.  Billy claimed to have seen them walking around the barn.  He said the doe looked right at him, like it knew what he was thinking.

There was talk going around, rumors, that maybe Billy had turned into a firebug or something.

John and Edna were considering seriously getting professional help for the boy.


© Rebecca Morn, all rights reserved
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