Maiden spring had awakened
Napper’s Holler from its winter sleep, enrobing the hills in shades of green.
The misty season of rebirth put Father Joe Murphy in mind of his island
homeland far across the untamed sea. To his dismay, this early morning’s
reverie was interrupted by the thud of a heavy item upon the stoop before his
Saint Elmo’s parishioners were
always gifting him the game and wares they were sure he needed, whether or not
he actually needed them. He hoped it wasn’t a deer now that his housekeeper,
who’d been an excellent cook, had gone to her reward… God rest her soul,
he prayed, blessing himself with the sign of the
cross and opening his door.
The limp body wrapped in the
smelly blanket was a shock to the priest, whose gorge rose as he carefully
unrolled it. Still warm!
“Ugh!” groaned the disheveled, dark-skinned,
young man, who shivered and thrashed uncontrollably. With a mighty spasm, the
stranger heaved himself up and grabbed the crucifix around the priest’s neck,
crying, “Save me!”
“Son, I’ll do what I can.”
Father Joe gingerly turned the man over, only to discover that his woolen
breeches were full of blood, shit, and holes from buckshot. “I’d better get Doc
Starr. Don’t go anywhere, young man. Try not to move.” The only response was a
weaker groan and stronger thrashing.
The Previous Day
Agent Will Throckmyer approached the
shanty. The decrepit fence with a broken gate proved no hindrance. A crude,
hand-lettered sign hanging from the gatepost read:
SMILEY STED. KEP OWTA HEER!
Will whistled to himself as he
kicked the gate aside, and probed his pocket for the tax papers. One J.J.
Smiley and his family probably owed more than the stead was worth. The agent
made sure his badge was centered, his chin up and his mouth down, to show he
meant business. He could not let them know this was his first collection.
“Hello the stead! Anyone to home?”
“Pa ain’t here, Mister. He’s
ahuntin’ and I’m not to open the door while he’s away,” came a child’s hushed,
“C’mon out, honey, where I can
see you,” encouraged Will. “I brought candy. Is your mama home?”
“Ain’t got no mama.” It was
more a growl than a whisper this time.
A tiny white hand, then an arm,
crept from around the edge of the shanty. Will dangled the brown-paper-wrapped
sweet. He had to admire the childish logic that let the little one keep her
door closed, but did not prevent her climbing out a window for the right bribe.
He set the candy on the porch for her and backed away to give her space.
As more of the child emerged,
Will let out an involuntary gasp. Not only was her skin so pale he could see
her veins, her wispy hair was like spider silk. Most startling of all were her
pink eyes. She put him in mind of a white rabbit his family had kept for a pet.
Her only clothing was a flour sack with holes for head and arms, its once-white
cloth now mottled with green…mildewed. In spite of these drawbacks, the girl
showed a promise of eerie beauty.
“May I sit a spell?” asked Will
politely, wanting to hold his suffering nose, but instead unwrapping a candy of
his own with long, bony fingers and hunkering down on the wormy wood. “I’m
Agent Will Throckmyer, here on official government business.”
“I’m Angel Skye Smiley…and
you’re nothin’ but an ol’ revenuer. I’m not simple, you know.”
Will pushed up his rimless
glasses on his narrow nose, and cleared his throat. “I do thank you for your
name, little miss…and I sure could use a thirst quencher. I always carry my own
Angel, who hadn’t touched the
candy, suddenly vanished, lickety split on silent feet, back around the edge of
the shanty. “Come on down t’ the spring, then, Mister,” she invited from a
Will rose slowly, stretching
his lanky limbs and scratching where his wool suit chafed. He walked around the
shanty toward the sound of a creek, and noticed a still and a sty in passing,
although there was no outhouse. He breathed deep of the clean woodsy scent and
caught a whiff of fresh-turned loam, but couldn’t see any garden.
When Will returned to the
porch, he found a scrawny sow munching the candy he’d offered Angel, paper and
“Sarah Jane likes your treat!”
Will jumped at the sound of Angel’s delighted voice. She was sitting high in a
tree overhanging the shanty, looking down on him from a leafy perch.
“I’ve got more candy, Miss
Angel. You must be hungry, and your situation is like to give you splinters.”
“I ain’t hungry, and splinters
don’t matter to me either, Mister…not anymore. You’d best be on your way before
Pa comes home.”
“Well, yes, I guess I can leave
these papers I brought right by the door, and take the tax he owes with me.”
Will quickly pulled some rope from his deep, handy pockets, and put it around
Sarah Jane’s neck, holding another candy in front of her snout to speed her
“You can’t take her, Mister.
I’m gonna call my pa home. And he’ll teach you a lesson. He ain’t simple
either.” Will saw Angel Skye open her mouth impossibly wide until it was a
huge, dark hole. No sound came out. Soon, however, he heard a hound baying.
Sarah Jane gave a loud squeal
and nearly trampled him underfoot on her way through the gate, as BLAM! BLAM!
split the air and the seat of Will’s britches at the same time. The two ran,
hell-bent-for-leather, Sarah Jane’s momentum sending them both headlong down
The blanket fell on Will from
out of thin air, making him trip and land on his stomach and lie gasping, his
legs turned to rubber. He let go of the rope and saw red…but not before he saw
what had dropped the blanket (a burial shroud). His rotten pursuer couldn’t be
human, and yet it had shot him, outrun him, and trapped him… Sure he was about
to die, Will shat and peed his pants, tried to scream, and gagged instead.
“Dad-blasted revenuer!” cursed the deeply guttural, dirt-clogged
voice of J.J. Smiley, Angel Skye’s pa. Securing his fainting captive in the
shroud, the loathsome creature could not resist adding “Greenhorn!”
right before Will blacked out.
When Will Throckmyer came to in
Father Joe’s cozy parlor, he was safe, but in a world of hurt. Doc Starr had
extracted as many pellets as he could, and applied antiseptic to Will’s wounds.
He and Will were blessedly alone, the priest absent, attending to his daily
Much more than the agent’s body
was wounded; he realized his mind might never recover, let alone his self
esteem. No one at the agency would believe the true reason for his failure. At
the very least, he’d be dismissed; he might even be black-listed, and forced to
toil as a lowly day laborer. His family would never live down his disgrace.
Will was sure he was destined
for the poor house or the loony bin. And Doc Starr was no help as he
admonished, “Were it not for Father Joe, the old type of justice would have
prevailed—exceeding that dealt you
by the Smiley clan—and executed in the customary Napper’s Holler tradition…”
“Do you mean the local
hoosegow, Doctor?” Fear nearly paralyzed Will’s vocal cords. His balls
shriveled and his guts churned.
“Hanging…or worse, followed by
burial in unhallowed ground—at the haunted stead where you trespassed. It was
how we dealt with revenuers in days gone by, whether the clan they robbed was
alive in the ordinary sense or not. Christianity has mellowed us somewhat; our
new justice is tempered by mercy.”
“‘Forgive us our
trespasses’…and ‘Blessed are the merciful,’ or so the Good Book says,” added
Will, sighing. “I can’t return to where I came from, can I?”
“Hardly anyone leaves the
Holler robed in the flesh,” replied Doc Starr, his face solemn. “I grant you,
the Smileys were…er, are…a bit extraordinary. Angel Skye was the result of…er…closeness
between James-Abner Jr. and Janelle Amelia, the Smiley twins. She died in
infancy two years ago, yet you encountered her as a little girl...hmmm.”
Although these matters nauseated the more civilized Will, the doctor spoke as
lightly as if discussing the day’s menu.
“Who delivered me…from evil…to Father Joe’s?”
eager to change the subject to one slightly more palatable.
“I’m not exactly sure, Son.”
Doc Starr rubbed his chin in puzzlement. “Let’s see. If Angel’s pa is a ghoul,
her ma is a ghost, and Angel is some kind of cross between the two, that leaves
either Nellie Belle the hound or Sarah Jane the sow for transport.”
Remembering Sarah Jane’s love
of candy, Will was sure she’d helped him. In fact, he would have kissed the
sow’s snout if she were present.
“With his housekeeper gone to
her heavenly reward, I’m sure Father Joe can use a hardy lad like yourself to
attend to his cottage and Saint Elmo’s chapel. Can you cook too?” Noting Will’s
embarrassed silence, the doctor added more gently, “Well, there’s lots of fine
young ladies hereabouts who can teach you—most
of them alive in the ordinary sense—and a convenient shortage of eligible
bachelors. Since you’re no doubt a decent mathematician, Teacher Edwin Thomas
could use your help running the school too; he was a sailor, and maybe even a
As Doc Starr droned on, Will
drowsily pondered his future prospects, distracted by the more unlikely
possibilities. What if Angel Skye grows
into womanhood and comes
looking for me in the next spring or three? But, being green to the true
nature of Napper’s Holler, he put aside such unholy thoughts. The former agent
was, after all, a Christian man…and saved.