They Walk Among Us, Chapter Twenty-Seven: A Good Night to Die

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It was the big lightning-riven pine snag that did it. Late in the afternoon, we passed the huge trunk with its scorched, jaggedy top some thirty feet off the ground and the one great branch still sticking straight out to the side.

I’d been feeling edgier and edgier for the past hour or more. Couldn’t pin down why, which made it worse.

Then, rounding a bend in the game trail, the snag hove into view, skylined on a bare bit of ridge. Hit me like a slap in the face…and I was gone.

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“Damn you to Hell, Thomas Corlen!” I screamed at the white man stepping out through the door, off the front porch and onto his horse. “You–you–you–!!”

Words failed me, and besides, words wouldn’t save Jamie.

Nothing would, most likely. But I had to try. Mr. Corlen had left me tied hand and foot and belly-wrapped to my own rickety chair, trussed up with baling twine like a hog for slaughter.

I hated him. Corlen, not my son. If I lived long enough to get the chance, I’d gut him and leave the carcass out for the ants to feast on. He was loping that horse now, headed off the same way the lynch mob had gone. Gone to help pull the rope, most likely, or maybe just to watch the fun. String up another colored person, never mind this one being all of fifteen years old.

They’d murdered my man George three summers ago, the same bunch, led by that same hatchet faced Carl Bob Owens. Now they had my boy.

Worthless white trash, the bunch of ’em, never mind Carl Bob owning the sawmill and half the others being what their kind thought of as “respectable”.

Jamie’d already been beat half-unconscious by the time they drug him from the field, past the house for his Mama to watch, stumbling with his hands tied behind his back and the rope already around his neck, the hangman’s knot neatly snugged in place. Hauled him past his Mama so’s I could watch, hoping I’d try something foolish.

Ain’t no mother gonna put her own life before her child’s. I’d run back to the bedroom, grabbed George’s old shotgun, and…

…and that Thomas Corlen loomed in the doorway, grabbed the gun, gut-punched me when I tried to fight, tied me in this chair.

We’d thought he wasn’t so bad, at least for a white. Couple of years he’d been here now, a southern boy gone west after the War, rattled around out there for some years, then came on back to Dixie. Or so he said. Said he’d made a bit of a stake out yonder, watching the buffalo and the Indians get killed off, hard to tell sometimes which was vanishing faster, but he’d missed the South, so he’d come home.

Sort of, this being Mississippi and all. He’d grown up farther east, ‘cording to him.

He was a well set up man, worked hard, hired Jamie to help him sometimes. A few times, he’d even pitched in here, on our little farm George had owned free and clear. Word was, that’s why George had been lynched. Couldn’t have no uppity darky thinking he could own land instead of sharecropping it like most of our neighbors did.

The deed was registered at the Court House, too, all right and proper.

Yes sir, I’d thought Mr. Corlen might be different, but he weren’t. Abomination in the sight of the Lord.

Get hold of yourself, Hannah! That would be my own long dead Mama’s voice, speaking at me. Jamie ain’t dead yet, but he will be ‘less you do your part!

One thing I never much did was argue with Mama, dead or alive.

The twine wasn’t giving, but…I crowhopped the chair over by the counter, pulled the utensil drawer open with my teeth. We only had the one knife in there, but thank Jesus, the big wooden handle let me grab hold of it, pull it out of the drawer.

It promptly fell on the floor.

I didn’t hesitate. Started rocking that old chair, side to side, till it tipped over and I crashed to the floor. Pained my shoulder. Then I scooched around, tooth-pulled that knife out where it could be got to, spun around floor-dancing till my hands could feel it, got hold…and started cutting.

It felt like it took forever, turning that blade in my fingers–and slicing ’em some–till the edge could bear down on the twine. My eyes had nothing to do while that was going on, so they sorta looked up of their own accord, took note of the calendar hanging on the wall by the door.

July, 1882. Today was the third. Jamie had been so looking forward to Independence Day, fixing to shoot off them little firecrackers he’d traded William Hennings for.

If I didn’t git a move on, Jamie’d be celebrating the Fourth with the Lord.

I kept that knife sharp. Didn’t know how long it’d taken me to cut free, but it was done now.

Jamie might be done by now, too.

Bessie, our only mule, lit out like she knew the need. Her ears were laid back, and I’m thinking it likely mine were, too. Lead rope in my left hand, shotgun in my right, all the spare shells we had were tucked in my apron pockets, and I feared I was too late already.

If I was, I could take at least one of ’em with me. Maybe two. Mr. Corlen and Mr. Owens.

The hanging snag wasn’t hard to find. Everybody in our end of the county knew where it stood, skylined on a little open ridge, no more’n two miles from our place. The Klan and them others, folks like Carl Bob Owens, so proud of what they done, they didn’t bother to hide their faces. They loved that tree. Leonard Pikkins, the photographer, come along to the hangings most times, taking pictures to sell as souvenirs, along with our people’s fingers and toes–and sometimes other things, sometimes they didn’t stop at fingers and toes.

When they taught their children to sing, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe”, it weren’t no fairy tale. We heard ’em sometimes, too, calling Brazil nuts “niggerr toes”, not thinking a thing about it. Every other black dog in the county was named Nig, but they didn’t go around lynching puppies or selling black dog toes.

Only our toes.

They’d sold parts of George. Our friend Selma Hawkins, who worked for Miz Bergensen of the Bergensen plantation, said the lady of the house had one of George’s thumbs, kept it in a pickle jar labeled “Nigger Thumb, George Carpenter”. Selma said the pickled thumb was usually on display in their spacious dining room, though it had been put away out of sight once, when some snooty Yankee progressive liberal Lincoln lover had come to call from Massachusetts.

The sun was setting. I could hear the commotion now, the mob hooting and hollering with glee. Usually, that meant the colored person wasn’t quite dead yet, could still appreciate their fine sense of mockery.

It wouldn’t do me no good to jist charge on up there, galloping poor old Bessie like we was doing a cavalry charge. They’d just play Shoot the Moving Target, and I’d be dead a few seconds before my son.

So I slowed the mule down, eased off into the woods, tied her lead rope to a small tree, left her with her sweaty flanks heaving and sucking wind. Crept forward, one seriously frantic female.

Mr. Corlen’s roan horse was tied off, too, a little closer to the hanging clearing.

That puzzled me. Why hadn’t he ridden on up there with the rest of them?

And then, heart in my throat, thudding like it would break right out of my chest, I got a good look at what was going on.

It was still light out, plenty to see by. My boy was up there, the hanging rope slung over the tree limb all right, but tied off so’s he wouldn’t die quite yet. If he stood on tiptoe, he could breathe, but the moment his legs gave out….

His hands were still tied behind him.

They were jeering and taunting and laughing, all seven of them, and one of ’em had a whip in his hands, fixing to work Jamie over a bit more’n he’d already done.

Pretty small for a lynch mob these days, but more than enough to torture and hang one terrified fifteen year old boy.

I didn’t bother to listen to what they were saying. Didn’t need to. Jamie had been overheard running his mouth–to a colored friend, but overheard by a white man in town–that he didn’t figure they’d been right to lynch his Pappy.

That was it. That was all it took. Uppity, uppity, uppity.

Couldn’t figure where that Thomas Corlen had gotten to, till I heard him yell out.

“That’s enough, boys!”

Took ’em a moment to realize, but soon enough they all turned to see what the ruckus was about. Corlen was standing a good quarter of the way around the clearing from where I was, with the setting sun to his back so’s you had to squint to make him out, and then you only got a silhouette.

“Corlen? Come on, join the party!” This from ol’ hatchet face, Carl Bob himself.

“This party is over!” This time, the tone got through. Amazing as it seemed, Thomas Corlen, white himself and a gut-puncher of women, was not there for the entertainment.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.

There was a slow shift–mob fever takes a while to receive the message, sometimes–but they worked it out.

Carl Bob’s voice turned ugly. “Join up or light out, nigger lover! Or we’ll stretch yore neck right along with Jamie’s, here!”

“Figured you’d say that.”

I gotta say, that Mr. Corlen didn’t sound the least bit worried, but now he had me confused. Could I be understanding this right? Was he really trying to stop the lynching?

Nah. Couldn’t be. I dug a finger in my ear, trying to clear the wax.

It seemed Mr. Owens didn’t much like being challenged. His next words were, “What you gonna do, plowboy? Shoot me?”

Yes sir. Corlen shot him. Right through the heart, dropped the fool like a sack of potatoes hitting the root cellar. Our white neighbor didn’t stop there, either; he was down on one knee, working that Colt revolver rifle of his, popping lynchers like they was so many ducks on a pond.

Not that he had it all his own way. When Corlen’s rifle ran empty, there were still two men left standing to face him. ‘Course, one didn’t really face him. That was the photographer, who’d knocked over his own camera tripod in his haste to git outa there.

The last man was Beauregard Simms, a big fat hunk of meanness who worked around town, sweeping the general store and saloon and doing whatever other odd jobs kept him in whiskey. Simms had him a shotgun leaning against the hanging tree. When the shooting started, he’d gone for that gun, and he had it now. Wouldn’t of done him no good, seeing as how Mr. Corlen had pulled a pistol and already had the hammer back–but when that hammer fell, the revolver only went -*click*-.

Corlen was fast. I seen him cock that shooter again. But when it -*clicked*- that second time, he dropped the gun and pulled his Bowie knife.

Gonna throw it, I reckoned, but that was a long throw. Besides, Mr. Simms was bringing that shotgun to bear. He had the man who’d punched me and tied me to that chair dead to rights.

So I shot him with my shotgun.

Simms, not Corlen.

We nearly didn’t get Jamie down from there in time. His legs had given out and his face was turning purple when I grabbed him to lift him off the ground. Mr. Corlen cut that rope with one big whack of his Bowie against that tree limb, and then we got that rope offa my boy’s neck.

He was still breathing, though he choked something fierce, and after a bit, he threw up all over the bloodstained ground.

I looked up at the white man while Jamie was purging himself. “Why?”

He just shook his head. Didn’t feel like ‘splaining, I guess.

“One got away,” I suddenly remembered. “The photographer. Leonard Pikkins. He’ll be tellin’ what you did from one end a the county to the other.”

He nodded, seeming unconcerned. “They didn’t see you, Hannah. Let me help you get Jamie up on Bessie, then you two hit fer home. Grab what you need outa the house, then git to yer hideout in the woods. Lay low fer a few days. When you come back out, and the Sheriff comes around asking what you know, tell him you came upon the scene like it is now, bunch of dead men and your son hanging. You cut him down, took him home, and that’s all you know.”

I nodded, and we got to work.

The last I seen of Thomas Corlen, he was moving around Hanging Snag Ridge, which I s’posed was more like Slaughtered Lynchers Ridge now. He was moving around, bending over the men we’d shot.

Not all of them were dead when I turned away to take my son home, but by the time the Sheriff got there with two dozen men and half a dozen bloodhounds in his posse, there was nobody left alive.

Naturally, the hunters wanted to know everything they could find out about Thomas Corlen. When the time came I had to talk to them, Jamie and I told them what I knew of the man–with a few exceptions. We spoke freely of his coming to Mississippi just two years earlier, and that he’d paid for his place with gold. That was common knowledge, anyway. We also shared the fact that he’d hired Jamie a few times, to help him roof his barn and dig post holes and things like that.

We did not tell them he’d helped us on our place more than once. Such gossip woulda convinced the lynchers I’d been providing him certain…”services”. Which could easily get me and my son both hung the next time.

Nor did I tell them how Corlen had looked the last time I saw him, limping bad, one arm hanging more useless than not, bleeding like a stuck pig.

When I crashed back into present time, I brought the recall with me. The sun was farther along toward evening; I‘d been out for a while. Jack, in the lead, suddenly switched angles, reining his grulla more sharply downslope. Sissy turned in the saddle, looking back at me for just a moment. I gave her a little two-finger salute.

But also, I remembered. How the Mississippi Sheriff had taken all those men and all those dogs and gone a-Thomas hunting. There’d been an easy blood trail, from the Hanging Snag to the Corlen house, where Thomas Corlen had obviously taken his own advice and outfitted himself before heading to the swamps.

They found the roan horse, which everyone knew belonged to Corlen, sold to a farmer whose place bordered Cutter’s Creek. The farmer had a bill of sale, told Sheriff Bowes they’d likely catch their man soon, since he was on foot now.

Three days later, Bowes returned to town in a foul humor.

Seems Corlen had dosed his trail with cayenne pepper. Threw the dogs off long enough to vanish into the swamp…and was never seen again.

Died in there, most likely. That’s what the good Sheriff put about, anyway, and members of his posse were quick to agree.

That bunch might be dyed-in-the-wool southerners, but they weren’t no swamp rats. Besides the usual gators, cottonmouths, skeeters, and such, we had us a most excellent Mississippi Swamp Monster story.

It’s kind of amazing, what you can get white folks to believe by servants just dropping a hint or two here and there, over time.

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I’d been right about our timing; we found the helipad just as full dark was fixing to clobber deep dusk on the head for the night.

Didn’t dare move in too close. Jack whisper-told us the obvious, that there were too many places to hide nearby, plus there’d be booby traps. They couldn’t possibly expect us civilians to have tracked them down to this exact spot, no matter that we’d won two of the three first rounds, but we couldn’t afford to understimate them, either.

Like we so badly had, the day Sam died.

What we could do was get in position to hose down that helipad right and proper, without tripping any snares or falling into any pits or stumbling over any sentries.

Bit of a problem with that.

Nah, not the possibility that we were doing all this for nothing. We might have worried, but about twenty minutes into our night vision scanning, Sissy caught a bit of movement. Jack and I were both looking elsewhere at the time, didn’t see it, but she assured us there’d been two men, came out to the edge of the treeline down there before turning and disappearing back into the forest.

All three of us breathed long, quiet sighs of relief.

If there’d been nobody there, it might have meant they’d been airlifted out last night–the first night there’d been no law enforcement air cover patrolling the Bob–or it might have meant something far more sinister. If a chopper had brought in enough lifting power to get them out of the wilderness safely, it could just as easily have brought in a bit of heavier ordnance for them to use in yet another attack on the ranch.

RPG’s, for example, or even outdated, shoulder fired Stinger missiles. Anything that would reduce the ranch house to rubble on the first pass, maybe clobber the buildings at Jack’s place while they were at it. Heck, a hundred-pound boulder dropped from the air would do it.

But they were still here. Thank the good Lord for small favors.

Not that this one was particularly small.

We were situated well above the helipad but within rifle range, an estimated 250 yards, shooting downhill. The plan–if you could call it a plan–was to (a) wait till the chopper showed up (if it showed up), (b) spread out a bit, (c) wait some more till everybody was out in the open near the chopper, far enough away from the trees for us to mow ‘em down before they could get back under cover, and (d) wing it from there.

Simple enough, with only about a thousand things that could go wrong.

What the hey, it was a good day to die.

Or, um, a good night to die.

The waiting was hard. The horses were tied off nearby, where a couple of deadfalls might hopefully keep them from taking any stray rounds of return fire. Every time one of them cropped a mouthful of grass, you could hear the chewing. It sounded loud enough I kept thinking Morse could hear it, too, even though I knew better.

Or at least hoped I did.

Somewhere around midnight, we finally heard what we’d been listening for.

Jack and Sissy moved off silently. She’d be setting up about twenty yards to my right, with Jack another thirty beyond that. Nothing fancy about the position selection.

I was wishing for a foxhole, but the ground was still mostly frozen, and one clink of a steel shovel striking rock could have done us in.

When the helicopter rose over the far ridge, the visual impact was uncannily like what you see in the movies. Or in one of those video games that probably ought to be banned.

Even that far away, it was beautiful. It was lethal. It was…

…it was the same Sikorsky logging chopper that had dropped a telephone pole our way, up on Highway 2.

I started salivating. No, I’m not joking; I really did. I. Had. To. Have. This. Bird.

If I could get it. The rules of engagement we’d set for ourselves were pretty simple:

1. Shoot the bastards.

2. Priority One: Morse Code dies first. Remember Sam. Nobody gets aboard the chopper, and nobody makes it back to cover in the timber.

3. Chopper is second priority. We want it grounded if possible. But don’t bother shooting at it if there’s even one Morse Code man still twitching.

4. One prisoner for interrogation if we can manage it, from the chopper crew only–whether that’s a lone pilot or otherwise.

5. Nobody takes any unnecessary risks. If that means no prisoners, so be it.

6. If even one Morse Code guy makes it back into the trees, get on the horses and get the Hell out. These guys are just too dangerous to try playing peek-a-boo with.

Made sense. There were parts of it I didn’t like, but it made sense. Once they realized we were in the area….

We’d just better not miss.

Switching from the night vision monocle to the scope provided magnification capability…and food for thought. A Sikorsky like this one was never designed to carry passengers or traditional cargo. Basically, it’s an airborne crane. From the look of it, there might be room for two in the cockpit, but no more than that.

What were they up to?

Then, silhouetted against the skyriding moon, I saw the answer, a…I guess you could call it a cargo box, hanging well below the belly of the chopper, suspended by cables, no doubt–though even with the rifle scope, I couldn’t truly see those.

Got a little distracted there, watching the bird swoop in and down, coming to hover directly over the helipad.

Hover. Not land. Now that it was close enough, the carry box looked pretty sizeable, ten by fourteen feet at a guess, say three feet of sidewall height.

Must be grab handles in there, if they figured to lift out the mercs in that. But what about the prop wash?

Ah. With the cargo box on the ground, the chopper lifted, what, a couple hundred feet in the air? Enough to make the prop wash not a problem.

They must have a super powered winch in that thing. Reel up! Reel down!

Reel me up, Scotty!

The Morsers were on the move. They hustled out of the trees, hunched over, ants on a mission, heading back to the hive. One, two, three, four–where was five?

Come on!

I found myself thinking, Horace, I hope you had that count right! When we’d been tracking them, not even Jack Hill could say for sure it was five men we’d been following. There just hadn’t been that much sign, at least not that we’d found.

Ah! And there he was, that all important fifth guy, slowed down just a bit by the machine gun he was carrying.

Time to roll. My first shot was supposed to open the ball. I definitely did not want that machine gun reaching that big steel box, maybe being able to use it for cover, spraying this section of the mountain with thousands of rounds, zeroing in on our muzzle flashes.

One shot, one kill, I reminded myself. Left elbow on left knee, next best thing to a fixed rest for me. Crosshairs following target. Remember to hold a foot low at this range from this elevation. Time it between heartbeats–

–*CRACK!*–

The machine gunner went down hard. I was pretty sure he wasn’t getting up. Another guy lunged for the M60 as I was working the bolt on my rifle. He didn’t make it. Sissy opened up with Horace’s bipod-equipped AK-47, shooting from a prone position, sprawled in the snow, every third round a tracer. Not full auto, but yeah, she had a selector switch on there if she decided to use it, courtesy of a Vietnam vet in Kansas who specialized in black market AK conversions.

At the rate she was peppering the enemy on semiauto, it wasn’t that easy to tell the difference.

Tracers can be a double edged sword, of course. They show you where you’re hitting, but they also draw a clear line back to you. Not that it makes much difference when all those big, bright orange muzzle flashes are lighting up the night.

It was Sissy’s job to mow ‘em down, Jack’s and my duty to keep them from picking her off. The Protector didn’t fire a round until the first return fire came back our way, a burst of full auto that barely got started before Hill’s heavy weapon bellowed.

Yeah, bellowed is the right word. For this night’s work, he wasn’t counting on his little .22. This was a “big double”, a Weatherby .500 Magnum elephant gun.

Experienced soldiers will tell you the movie image of a guy flying backward when he gets shot is B.S., and that’s mostly true…unless he gets shot with an elephant gun. The guy Jack hit was blown off his feet and back into the steel cargo box, his boots hooking on the edge and facing the sky.

No twitchy death throes for this soldier.

One man did last long enough to try a run for the trees. I took a crack at him, missed, and–and Sissy got him, tracking him down with the last three shots out of her first 30-round stick.

It took her three seconds to flip magazines. I know. I counted, listening to the silence, punctuated only by the chopper blades ramping up and somebody screaming in agony down there, the bloody snow flaring bright green in our night vision scopes.

Had the Sikorsky pilot simply dropped the cargo box, he might have made it. But a logging helicopter is not an Apache gunship, and this driver–as we were to find out shortly–was no combat vet. He was used to lifting stuff slow and easy, setting it down slow and easy. His combat reflexes were…underdeveloped, shall we say.

Bluntly put, he panicked. The sky crane lifted the box, and the whole mess headed for that eastside ridge, trying to get out of Dodge. He did make it across the river…but the box did not clear the timber on the other side. It was like a giant game of crack-the-whip with the chopper being the tip of the whip.

The impact, when the chopper slammed nose-down into a thick stand of Douglas fir, wasn’t quite as loud as I’d thought it would be. Loud enough, though.

I stayed put, watching our downed enemies closely. Finally figured out which one was still screaming. Being the good guy I am, I put him out of his misery.

All quiet on the mountain front.

We’d done it. We’d actually done it.

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“High alert till we know everybody’s good and dead,” Jack advised us before we rode out of the timber, pistols in hand. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a fatally wounded warrior.”

Well, duh.

Though we needn’t have worried.

Identifying Jonathan Morse was important, but we didn’t find him at first. Hopefully, he was the guy Jack had elephant gunned into the cargo box. But that box was over there on the other side of the river, hung up in the trees. Upside down, for all we knew.

“You know what we have to do,” were Hill’s next words, and we did. We’d be leaving the bodies back in the trees a ways, figuring somebody would stumble across them, but hoping for later rather than sooner. The best thing would have been to dump ‘em down the hole in the ground Sam Trace had taught us to use for wolf disposal–Lord, I missed that man–but lugging all these bodies cross-country for another full day? With just three horses at our disposal?

Not in the cards.

We could, however, make sure whoever found the corpses–or what was left of them by then–would never be able to prove they died by gunfire, no matter how fancy the forensic science involved. So we dissected them, partially. Think of it as a formal autopsy, without the formal part.

Two of the mercenaries had been headshot, so we took the bullet-holed skull tops with us. Soft tissue didn’t matter, but by the time we were done, we had a collection that included two pelvic bones, a clavicle, and several ribs, all of them holier than thou.

Coulda had a barbecue.

Kidding, folks. Graveyard humor. You need it, times like these.

I was never prouder of my lady. Joan of Arc, eat Sissy’s dust.

With the necessary remains wrapped in gallon-sized storage baggies gathered in a black plastic Hefty trash bag and stashed behind our saddles, it was time to go. Hill knew where we could cross the river safely, then angle back up on the other side, seeing if we could find where the helicopter crashed.

It took a while. Spotted the cargo box first, more by luck than anything else.

I had to climb one helluva tree to confirm that yes, this body draped over the branches up here was indeed Jonathan Morse, and the monster hole through his chest was enough to declare him well and truly dead. Almost fell out of the tree while going through his pockets and appropriating his weapons, but close only counts in horseshoes and tax audits, or however that goes.

At least, we didn’t need to dissect this guy. Slung up here in the canopy with a crash like this one, that injury could have come from anything.

The cable was still intact but not easy to follow at night, strung high through the thick timber like it was. In fact, it was close to moonset when we finally found the Sikorsky, or what was left of it. The chopper had powered down in the trees hard enough for the nose to almost reach the ground. The cable running to the cargo box, strung tight enough we didn’t want to be anywhere near it, had sheared off a whole bunch of branches from trees on the way down.

It was sort of like a super-bungee jump, except that nothing bounced back up.

The pilot was dead, impaled through the gut by a snapped-off branch that had come through the cowling before introducing itself to his intestines.

But the copilot….

“Well, lookee here,” I remarked, my flashlight illuminating two burning eyes set in an all too familiar hatchet face. “Looks like the rumors of one man’s death have been greatly fabricated.”

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