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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

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Art by Darren Blanch 2021

Four Slugs

By C.A. Rowland

 

            Lester Moore was my husband. I’ll never forget the day I saw him leaning against a wood post holding up one corner of the general store. Cool as sparkling water from the mountain stream that ran behind our cabin, he whittled on a stray branch of Virginia pine, all the while, his dark eyes taking in the doings along the road. Tanned face, too young to be weathered like my father’s. Long fingers that held the knife, sure against the strips of bark he released along the surface of the wood. I wondered how those would feel on my skin. Goosebumps rose on my arm.

          My daddy and I had walked to town that day. I’d run most of the way behind the barely there shadow my father’s lean frame cast—arms by his side, his movements as severe as his manner.

Sometimes I knew when something important lay just the other side of not knowing. That day, I didn’t know it would be Lester, only that something rode the wind pulling at my long mud-colored hair.

          Slow and steady, my daddy’s long strides were measured along the dirt path as we descended from the higher elevation of green brush and thick browning undergrowth where one could easily become lost if you hadn’t grown up in these parts. A gray squirrel dashed across the path, its long bushy tail lined with white flashed once before disappearing beneath yellowing leaves. The dirt I stirred up from my footsteps tickled my nose, and my mouth grew dry in the early morning sun and the breeze carrying the scavenger’s leftover meals’ scents.

          No words. Those had all been said while I’d pleaded and begged to go to town. With a nod, my daddy had given in before he headed out the door. Two minutes later, I’d followed.

          I’d smiled at Lester as I took in his coal-black hair with eyes to match, in my shy sixteen-year-old way. Wishing Daddy had let me clean up a bit more before we left. Figured that a stranger had been what I sensed. Then, followed Daddy into the store for the things my mama needed.

Sheriff Hokster had been there too, a short, stocky man whose family had lived in this holler for as long as anyone could remember. He’d tipped his hat to me, exposing his short white hair and a gentle smile against a leathery face. Unlike the day the sheriff came to tell me about Lester.

          Twenty-six years Lester and me had been married at that point. Four of them Lester had been gone. Some said he’d run off with a younger woman. There was some truth in that he had an eye for pretty young things.

          Some said he moved on to an easier life. There was some truth in that too. Lester had come to the mountains to find gold, but all he got were black rocks and a cough.

          It turned out Joe Crowley found him just the other side of the holler, behind some rocks where his bones had been sheltered from the weather but not the critters.

          “Do you know what happened to him?” I asked.

          “Well, I’ve got some clue,” Sheriff Hokster said, “Looks like someone put a couple of bullets in him. Can’t rightly say how many, but I found three of them.”

          I closed my eyes. I’d done my crying long before Lester was found.

          “You don’t seem too surprised, Laura June,” Sheriff Hokster said.

          “Lester’s been gone four years. I expect I knew he wasn’t coming back.”

          “Four years is about how long ago that mess with Lucy Marie happened. Your family involved in Lester’s death?” Sheriff Hokster asked.

          “No sir, wasn’t none of them involved that I know of.”

          “I’m headed over to your brother’s place. Gonna have to ask them the same questions,” Sheriff Hokster said.

          “You know how our family is. We take care of our problems.”

          “That’s why I’m asking your brother what he knows,” Sheriff Hokster said as he turned, leaving me rocking on my front porch, where I’d known a visitor would arrive.

           I frowned. A tear I didn’t know I had left in me rolled down my cheek.

          Lester had been a good husband, mostly. He’d waited until I was seventeen, and he had a job at the coal mine before he’d asked my daddy to court me. Daddy didn’t care for him, but my choices were limited in the valley, so he’d allowed it.

          He’d treated me right. We took walks in the wood. He’d even bought me a soda when we strolled to town. His arm crooked so I could slip mine through.

          After we’d married, my family helped build a cabin. Far enough away from my family to be separate, close enough for help to come when needed. I’d watched his muscles strain as he helped lift logs as our new home grew. Proud to call him my husband that day. Even my daddy seemed to have warmed up to him a bit.

          I’d needed help when my first baby had come. Lester was off on one of his exploring trips. He’d asked my younger sister, Sarah Jean, to stay with me. She’d had to run for my mama when the pains got bad.

          Mama told me birthin’ was women’s work when I cried over Lester not being there. I knew she was right, but my heart felt like it was ripped apart with love for my new baby girl, Sallie Sue, and anger at Lester.

          I didn’t know it then, but that would be Lester’s pattern when birthin’ time came. One of my sisters would show up, and I’d know Lester was off again, not to be seen until the baby was born.

          When the third baby was born still, I cried for days while my mama held me tight. All I wanted was the comfort of Lester’s strong arms around me, my head on his chest. A week later, Lester showed up.

          I pounded on his chest with my fists. Railing against God and Lester that they had failed me.

Days later, as we buried the baby, I understood where Lester had been. A small cross, carved from Virginia pine stood at the head of the new grave. Lester had found his way to honor our stillborn child.

I stared into Lester’s eyes, saw the pain he felt, and the new lines on his leathery face he’d gained while he struggled with our loss. I’d melted then, and forgiven him, pulling him close to me to give us both comfort.

Daddy’s death hit me hard. The family had been building Robbie Sam’s cabin for him and his new wife. A log Daddy and Lester had been lifting slipped, smacking Daddy on the head and trapping him underneath.

Daddy had lingered for three days. I’d wanted to send for a doctor, but Mama had taken one look at Daddy and known before any of us that Daddy wasn’t long for this world.

“It was an accident, Laura June. Simple as that. Happens,” Mama said.

I’d stared at Daddy, so white and lifeless in their bed. Wondering what would happen to Mama and the family once Daddy was gone. No one but Mama spoke to me. Almost like I’d jinxed his chances by asking for a doctor.

Mama always yielded to what Daddy said. I expected that Jimmy Ray, a mirror image of my daddy, would be the man of the family now. I was older, but crossing Jimmy Ray wasn’t something I wanted to do. He was the head of our family now.

Daddy passed on, and Jimmy Ray handled the burial. Lester took off without a word. Knowing, I think, that being there was a bad idea. I’d stood by my mama, holding one arm while Sarah Jean held the other, my three children standing by me.

When Lester returned with a headstone, it was almost like a sigh of relief exhaled from the land. With time, our family returned to working, loving, and supporting each other.

Until … Lucy Marie.

My cousin from another holler who came to live with Jimmy Ray and his wife. I never heard the whole story, but it seemed Lucy Marie was a wild one. Running loose and out of control, Jimmy Ray agreed to take her on if she helped his wife with their four children. For a year or so while Lucy Marie grew up a bit and until she could find a husband.

With a willowy frame and hair that shone in the sunlight, she was a pretty little thing – just like Lester liked. Didn’t take long before rumors started about Lucy Marie and Lester. Going on walks into town.

I ignored the stories. Wasn’t like Lester to actually do anything about the girls he fancied. We had a good marriage and understood each other. Lester knew I’d never put up with him cattin’ around with another woman.

Or so I thought.

Jimmy Ray came by to tell me he’d seen Lester and Lucy Marie in the woods kissing. I wouldn’t have believed it if Jimmy Ray hadn’t seen it. Ramrod straight like my father, Jimmy Ray talked only when needed, but when he spoke, he never lied.

I confronted Lester. “How could you kiss my cousin?”

“She kissed me. I was just being nice to her,” Lester said. “She’s lonely, kinda like you were as a kid.”

“You know this ain’t right. You have to stop it now.

Lester nodded, and I let it drop.

Two days later, Lucy Marie stopped by. “Why’d you tell Lester he can’t see me no more?”

“He’s my husband, and he’s got no business spending time with you,” I said.

“We ain’t hurting nobody. You’re just a dried-up ole prune anyway.”

          I almost choked on her words. “You stay away from him, you hear. I know all about you and your ways. Time you found someone of your own if you want a man.”

          Lucy Marie just laughed and turned to leave.

          “Things happen in these woods. You know we protect our own,” I said.

          “Don’t you be threatening me,” Lucy Marie said. “Jimmy Ray won’t like that.”

          “Jimmy Ray’s my brother, and he’s the one who told me about you. Don’t be thinking he’s gonna help you if you get in trouble.”

          I watched Lucy Marie’s face pale. She stuck her tongue out at me before she turned and headed back the way she’d come.

           When Lucy Marie turned up pregnant, we all knew why she’d been sent to stay with Jimmy Ray. Although my brother claimed he hadn’t known.

          Lucy Marie claimed Lester was the father even though the timing didn’t quite work. Lester said he’d never touched her. But then there was the kiss Jimmy Ray had seen.

          I had to give Jimmy Ray credit. He handled the situation as my daddy would have. Told Lucy Marie she could stay to have the baby. Afterward, they’d see. Jimmy Ray said he didn’t know who the daddy was for that baby, but since Lucy Marie was family, her baby would be welcome no matter who fathered it.

          Everyone breathed a sigh of relief even as Lucy Marie fumed and fused and grew bigger and bigger.

          I was there at the birth. A beautiful baby girl with a head of hair the color of straw. A sigh of relief that the little one didn’t have black hair like all my children.

          Still, Lucy Marie was a wound that wouldn’t heal. When she walked away and didn’t come back, we searched. Jimmy Ray found her body near where he’d seen Lester and Lucy Marie kiss. Appeared she’d fallen from above – jumped or been pushed.

          The surprise was Jimmy Ray’s son, Chester. Seems he’d taken a shine to Lucy Marie when the family gathered for her burial. She’d given him no hope, but he’d thought that with a baby, she might settle down and marry him.

          “Lucy Marie swore to me that I was the father,” Chester said. “Lester was jealous that she loved me and not him. Lester killed her.”

          Jimmy Ray stared at his son. “What are you saying?”

          “I’m the father of that baby. Lucy Marie was gonna marry me. After the baby was born. She wouldn’t jump off those rocks. I was gonna talk to you about building us a cabin,” Chester said.

          “I don’t know about that. Why didn’t you tell me before?” Jimmy Ray asked.

          “You told me to leave her be. I tried, but we were in love,” Chester said.

          “That’s rubbish. The only thing that girl loved was twisting up men to do what she wanted,” I said.

          “Now Laura June, you don’t know that,” Jimmy Ray said.

          “I know it was Lester. I saw him on the trail up the mountain that morning,” Chester said. “Ask her,” he said, pointing at me. “She knows.”

          “How about it, Laura June? Lester go a walking that morning?” Jimmy Ray asked.

          “He did. But that don’t mean nothing. Lester walks all the time. He’s never hurt nobody.”

          “He killed Grandpa,” Chester said.

          I knew my face paled as I gasped. “That was an accident.”

          “Maybe. Maybe not,” Chester said. “There’s those that said he did it on purpose cuz he and Grandpa didn’t see eye to eye on how he treated you.”

          “What? Who says that?” I asked.

          “No one told you, but we all know he leaves you for days, isn’t there for your babies being born. Lots of things,” Chester said.

          I turned to look at Jimmy Ray and saw the truth there. They’d kept their opinions to themselves.

          “Lester wouldn’t kill anyone. Not in anger or accident,” I said.

          “He killed my future wife, and I claim the right of justice for her. Just like in the good book, an eye for an eye,” Chester said.

          “Now, wait a minute,” Jimmy Ray said. “This is a family matter. There’s been more wrongs here that need to be righted.”

          “That’s not right. I have the biggest right, him taking my wife and all,” Chester said.

          “Hush up,” Jimmy Ray said with a frown. “I make the decisions, not you.”

          Chester huffed but settled down.

          “Laura June? He’s your husband and you have the first wrong. By rights, Lester’s and the baby’s fate is yours to decide,” Jimmy Ray said.

          “I don’t believe a word of it. Lucy Marie was pregnant when she got here. That’s why the baby was born so soon. Lester wasn’t responsible.”

          “Maybe not,” Jimmy Ray said. “But there’s been more death around Lester than should be. And someone’s gonna have to raise the babe.”

          I sighed. “I can raise the baby. One more mouth won’t matter in my home.”

          “And Lester?”

          I knew at that point Lester had been judged and found wanting. If I left it to Jimmy Ray and Chester, Lester might suffer or be killed. While he’d done me wrong any number of ways, I loved him. But I couldn’t protect him from my family. If there was one thing that was truth in our holler, family came first.

          “I’ll handle it,” I said.

          “Pa, that’s not fair. It’s my right to avenge Lucy Marie,” Chester said.

          “You’ll do as you’re told. This is Laura June’s decision,” Jimmy Ray said.

          I nodded and left by the cabin door. Jimmy Ray followed me outside.

“You have one week. After that, I don’t know that I can keep Chester from moving on Lester,” Jimmy Ray said.

I nodded again. I knew that Chester was a hothead when he got riled up about something.

Lester came home that night. “I heard about Lucy Marie. Shame to see a young girl die so soon.”

“Chester thinks you killed her. Pushed her off the rocks.”

“I didn’t.”

“Doesn’t really matter. You know my family. They settle disputes between themselves.”

“Guess I’ll be heading out tomorrow. Let things quiet down a bit. Don’t want to be looking back to see who’s following me,” Lester said as he turned to me with a kiss.

“I guess that’s right.”

Lester headed out before daylight. I left later, having tended to my children and sent them to my sister’s for the day. I followed the dirt trail he always took. Past the clearing where he’d kissed Lucy Marie.

Jimmy Ray had been right that they were meeting. I had stumbled on them one morning, knowing I needed to solve things but not sure how.

Up the path to the rocks where Lucy Marie had died.

Lester turned and saw me.

“Laura June? Why’d it have to be you?”

“Better than what you’d get from Chester or Jimmy Ray. Or any of the others.”

“Lucy Marie just wouldn’t stop. Said she’d kill you and the kids if she had to. Make it look like an accident. I didn’t mean to kill her. You have to know that,” Lester said.

“And my daddy? Was that an accident?” I asked, needing to know.

“Your daddy was always a fair man to me. I wished him no harm.”

I stared at Lester as I pulled the .44 revolver out and aimed it at his chest. He’d hurt my daddy, missed my first two babies’ births, missed my son’s stillborn death, and killed Lucy Marie.

Four slugs for four grievances. No more, no less.

Lester fell over the same cliff that Lucy Marie had. I climbed up on the rocks and looked over. Lester had tumbled down further between the rocks than Lucy Marie had. I’d guessed that it might be a while before he was found. In the meantime, everyone would think he’d run off and left me.

I blew Lester a kiss as tears ran down my face. We’d had a good life, but family had always come first with me.

Better for everyone that it had been me, no matter how much that hurt.

I turned and headed back down the path. I needed to set up the cradle for Lucy Marie’s baby. I smiled. I wasn’t sure if the baby was Lester’s or not, but I’d raise her as if she was. A new baby was always a welcome addition to a family.

 

C.A. Rowland has always loved traveling and exploring new places, from neighborhood empty houses to foreign lands that draw her. She comes by her interest in ghosts, myths and legends, and the paranormal naturally, having spent hours in cemeteries with her grandmother. Ms. Rowland writes historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and the Haunted City amateur sleuth mystery novel series set in Savannah, Georgia.  Her work can be seen in several volumes of Fiction RiverPulphouse Magazine, and other short story anthologies. You can keep up with her upcoming fiction and travel adventures at www.carowland.com.


Darren Blanch, Aussie creator of visions which tell you a tale long after first glimpses have teased your peepers. With early influence from America's Norman Rockwell to show life as life, Blanch has branched out mere art form to impact multi-dimensions of color and connotation. People as people, emotions speaking their greater glory. Visual illusions expanding the ways and means of any story.

Digital arts mastery provides what Darren wishes a reader or viewer to take away in how their own minds are moved. His evocative stylistics are an ongoing process which sync intrinsically to the expression of the nearby written or implied word he has been called upon to render.

View the vivid energy of IVSMA (Darren Blanch) works at: www.facebook.com/ivsma3Dart, YELLOW MAMA, Sympatico Studio - www.facebook.com/SympaticoStudio, DeviantArt - www.deviantart.com/ivsma and launching in 2019, as Art Director for suspense author / intrigue promoter Kate Pilarcik's line of books and publishing promotion - SeaHaven Intrigue Publishing-Promotion.


In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2021