“Dead Man’s Holler”
by Mike Vanderboegh
(Another chapter of “Absolved”, an upcoming novella)
I ain’t nothin’ but a simple man.
Call me a redneck, I reckon that I am
But there’s things goin’ on that make me mad down to the core . . .
– “Simple Man”, by the Charlie Daniels Band
Charlie Quintard was fishing down on the dock behind the house on Smith Lake when the Suburban turned up the road. It wasn’t much of a road, but then it wasn’t much of a house. It was just a cabin really — a kitchen, a bathroom (both of which took their water from the spring up the bluff) and the great room where Charlie had lived alone and slept alone these past five and a half years.
Quintard was humming “Simple Man” by the Charlie Daniels Band softly so as not to startle the fish. Beside him, his coon dog Push (short for Pushmataha) raised his head and growled.
“Quiet,” ordered Charlie, “I’m fishin’ here.”
Push quit growling but stared up the hill in the direction of the cabin. Car doors slammed in the distance.
Charlie sighed to himself, “Here we go again.”
He knew who it was. Nobody came to Charlie’s place, not even by accident. You had to WANT to find this place to get here, which was why Charlie liked it. In all the time he’d lived here, he’d never been visited by somebody he didn’t know or hadn’t invited, except once.
Until last week.
Putting his pole in the fixture on the dock, Charlie Quintard stood up, Push rising beside him.
“No,” commanded Charlie, “Guard.”
Push halted. The dog permitted himself a short whine to indicate his protest.
“Stay. Guard,” repeated Charlie.
His rod and fish bucket would be safe from all predators now and so would Push. The last bunch had been trigger happy and when they came up on Push unexpectedly they’d shot at him and missed. If they’d been better marksmen, well, Charlie didn’t want to think on that. Phil always said they were big dog killers.
“Hello the house!” Charlie heard one of them shout. Well at least this bunch was more polite than the last. They’d just kicked in his door while he watched from the bluff above, and made a terrible mess of the place. Even stole one of his knives. One of them later told Charlie that they thought nobody was home because they didn’t see a car. Maybe this bunch had spotted the wisp of smoke coming out of his chimney, remnants of his breakfast fire in the cast iron stove in the kitchen.
“Hello the house!” came the call again, louder.
“Hello yourself,” Charlie replied amiably as he rounded the corner.
Four men in body armor and load bearing vests stood in front of the Suburban, spread out, weapons held at the ready. Two more stood behind the open front doors of the SUV, rifles pointed toward the cabin, ready to give covering fire if needed. All pivoted their weapons to point at Charlie.
Huh, six of them this time, Charlie noted silently, and better armed too. They were nervous though, Quintard could tell. Charlie kept his hands where they could see them.
“How can I help you fellers?” Charlie asked.
His voice was calm, steady, even friendly. Good, thought Charlie. I shoulda been an actor. He smiled inwardly to match the one on his face. He could see the agents were unimpressed.
“Is this Phil Gordon’s place? one demanded.
“Yup, he owns it, but I’ve been renting it now fer ’bout near six years now. I pay him a year’s rent in advance every June with my tax refund. I sorta watch the place fer him. Before I moved in, he found a buncha squatters running a meth lab in it. Been in his family fer years.”
“Well,” said one of the agents (his last name was Allen) with a malicious grin, “you’ll have to find another place to live, Bubba. This place belongs to the U.S. government now.”
“My name’s Charlie, not Bubba. Charlie Quintard.”
“You got any guns, Charlie?” demanded the first one, who was apparently the leader.
“Does it look like I do?” letting a slight exasperation bleed into his still-friendly voice.
“I mean in the house,” the leader clarified.
“Naw. Don’t own one. Don’t need ‘em.”
“Any of Phil’s hidden around the place?”
“Not that he ever tole me.”
“You mind if we look?”
It wasn’t a question nor the least bit friendly.
“Naw, go right ahead. Them other fellers you sent did too and they didn’t find nothin’.”
All six agents came instantly alert. If Charlie’s amiable conversation had taken the edge off some of their wariness, it was gone now.
“They were here?” the leader demanded.
“Shore, just like y’all but dressed in their shiny go-to-meetin’ suits. One of ‘em, said his name was Henderson, came up to nail some legal notice on the door. Said Mr. Gordon was a cop killer and he was dead and I was E-victed.”
“Where’d they go?” demanded the leader.
“How’d I know? They drove off in a truck just like that,” said Charlie pointing at the Suburban. “They got excited when I tole them ’bout Phil’s other place and they went off lookin’ for it. Reckon they found it, ’cause I ain’t seen ‘em since.”
“What other place?”
“The one at Dead Man’s Hollow (only Charlie pronounced it ‘Holler’). Phil’s family had a homestead there more than a hundred an’ eighty years ago.”
The first team’s Suburban had been found parked neatly behind the Winston County Sheriff’s Office in Double Springs. No one had a clue how it had gotten there. The four man team had vanished. It should be noted for the record that no one thought they were on an unannounced vacation in Vegas. And the local LEOs, as was usual these days, were uncooperative. How much of the Sheriff Department’s mystification was real and how much was an act was the subject of great debate at the ATF office in Birmingham, where both teams had come from.
The team leader was unimpressed with Charlie’s history lesson and started issuing orders.
“Allen, keep an eye on him. Chambliss and Duncan, search the house. You two,” indicating the men behind the doors, “stay here and cover us.”
“Hey, wait,” protested Charlie, “My dog is down by the dock. Can I call him up? That last bunch shot at him, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
The leader, whose name was Carmichael, hesitated. Finally, he nodded his assent.
Charlie yelled, “Push! Come here boy!” and then added as the agents moved toward the cabin, “You don’t have to kick in the door like them last fellers. It’s unlocked.”
They kicked it in anyway.
Push loped up the hill in easy strides and came to rest at Charlie’s feet. Quintard bent down and welcomed his only close friend, scratching him behind the ears and praising him.
“Good boy. Well done.”
This was actually working out better than the first time, Charlie thought. Maybe nobody gets shot at today. Maybe, he prayed, nobody dies. He began humming “Simple Man” again, as the agents tore apart his cabin.
Now I’m the kind of man who wouldn’t harm a mouse,
But if I catch somebody breakin’ in my house,
I’ve got a twelve gauge shotgun waitin’ on the other side.
So don’t go pushin’ me against my will
I don’t want to fight you but I durn sure will,
So if you don’t want trouble you’d better just pass me on by.
Charlie was a simple man and led a simple, spartan existence. There was no phone in the cabin, no radio or TV so there was no cable. Nor was there a computer, electric heaters, lamps or toasters. Charlie Quintard lived off the grid.
He had once been an IT specialist for HealthSouth down in Birmingham, but the hours were crazy, the pressure intense and the supervision positively anal. Still he was doing pretty well for a Winston County boy whose daddy had been a coal miner when he managed to get himself fired. His boss had discovered one morning that, buried in the detail of a historic painting of the Massacre at Fort Mims that Charlie used as a screen saver, there were two faces which he had modified from the original.
One was Charlie’s, superimposed on the body of a Creek brave, knife in the air.
The other was that of Richard Scrushy, the universally feared and despised CEO of HealthSouth, which had been electronically pasted onto the body of a white settler about to be scalped.
When Charlie lost his job, he lost his wife, his house and his taste for the outside world. Quintard retreated into the Bankhead National Forest of his youth, trying to get his head straight. He’d chanced across Phil Gordon, a boyhood friend of his daddy, in a convenience store in Addison one day, shortly after Phil’s encounter with the meth lab.
There was an identity of interest. Phil needed a house sitter and Charlie needed shelter in a place away from the world. Now, more than five years later, Charlie still enjoyed the solitude and Richard Scrushy, his humorless ex-boss was doing time in the federal slammer for corporate misdeeds, thus proving to Charlie Quintard the existence of a just God. The fact that Charlie’s annual rent was merely one dollar was none of the ATF’s business.
But because Charlie was a simple man, the search, if the clumsy tossing of his personal effects to no purpose could be called a search, didn’t take long.
Charlie had told them the truth. There were no firearms on the place. They did find his personal hunting knife and a half-dozen others in various stages of manufacture. They found his traditional bow and a quiver full of flint-tipped arrows. They tipped over his flint napping table and scattered his flints and tools across the greatroom floor. They found his tomahawk, emblazoned with the signs of his clan and tribe, for Charlie Quintard was three-quarter Cherokee.
They found, and threw to the floor, his many books on the early history of Alabama, Indian lore and primitive weapons and survival skills. They searched though his bulk foods that he kept in 5 gallon plastic pails, ruining some of it and spilling more. And then they found his medicine bag.
It hadn’t occurred to Charlie that the feds would mess with his sacred artifact, so when he saw Duncan come out with the ornately beaded bag in his outstretched hand, he startled.
“Hey boss,” yelled Duncan, “Look at this.”
“What’s in it?” asked Carmichael.
“NO!” Charlie yelled and started for the porch. “That’s my medicine bag! You CAN’T!”
“What kind of medicine? Pot?” asked Duncan as he dumped the contents out onto a table that stood on the porch to the right of the door. It looked like junk to the agent — a feather, a rock, some sticks and . . . something Duncan had never seen before.
It was an ancient panther claw. Charlie had found it when wandering in the Sipsey Wilderness. The Alabama black panther had been believed to be extinct after about 1920 or so, but their banshee cries at night had been recently heard again by more than one Winston Countian, including Charlie.
The claw was powerful medicine and though Charlie’s forward motion was stopped by the muzzle of Allen’s M-4, Push was not deterred.
In a blur he closed the distance between him and Duncan, flying up the steps and into the air, going for Duncan’s throat. Duncan stood as if rooted to the spot. Allen never wavered from covering Charlie.
Chambliss was inside and the two riflemen at the Suburban didn’t have a clean shot. That left Carmichael, who was standing off to the side. As the dog leaped, he presented a full profile to the senior agent. Still, if he hadn’t had his hand on his pistol he’d never have cleared leather. But he did, and he shot Pushmataha on the way by, hitting him with two of four shots. The lifeless dog hit Duncan squarely and knocked him ass over tit back into the doorway.
“NO!” screamed Charlie again. But even in his agony he did not lose his presence of mind. Allen still had him covered and seemed even more eager now to kill him than before. For one thing, the agent was smiling.
Oh, yeah, thought Charlie, you’ve done this thing before, haven’t you, you bastard? You LIKE it.
For his part, Allen was disappointed. By now, the agent figured, this hillbilly schmuck should have given him reason to blow his head off. This guy was either too smart, too stupid or too scared to do anything, and Allen tended to believe the last two rather than the first. Living this far out in the woods without a gun? That was just plain stupid. Yeah, sneered the agent to himself, Forrest Gump here was just a scared sheep like so many he’d seen over the years.
Used to be, Allen thought of himself as a sheepdog like most cops did. Not any more. It was a different world now. And after he helped pick up the bodies on Sipsey Street, Allen decided he would tell himself no more lies.
If being a wolf was what it took to survive, then he would be a wolf. One of the reasons he liked working for Carmichael was that the supervisory agent had made the same choice.
Allen knew that the only reason Carmichael had let the hick call his dog up was so they could set up a plausible incident and kill them both. The way Carmichael was looking at him now, Allen realized he had screwed up. The senior agent was pissed that Allen hadn’t taken his opportunity. Excuses could be manufactured later, and who would say different?
Allen caught Carmichael’s attention with an arched eyebrow and slight uptick of his muzzle toward Charlie. The senior agent shook his head imperceptibly. You missed your chance, wait for the next one.
“Go get your dog, asshole,” Allen told Charlie.
Charlie shuffled like a zombie up to the steps, pulling himself up the rail by what seemed to be superhuman effort. With a sob, he dropped to his knees beside the coon dog, cradling it in his arms and rocking back and forth slightly. He was crying.
Yeah, thought Allen disdainfully, just a sheep. Now, if Carmichael has this prick figured right, he’s going to go inside and either suck up his pitiful guts and come at us out the front with his worthless prehistoric weapons, or he will try to boogie out the back for the river. Allen had him figured for the back but he didn’t intend to kill him right away. They still needed to find out where this dead man’s whatever place was. Gotta give him some rope to hang himself though. Make him think he’s got a chance. Yeah, Allen saw, Carmichael had it figured that way too.
Charlie rose with Pushmataha and entered the cabin. At a gesture from Carmichael, Duncan and Chambliss came out of the cabin and down the steps, moving to the right and clearing the field of fire for the shooters at the Suburban. Turning, they now formed a perfect L-shaped ambush. Allen knew he was the plug in the drain.
As Allen ambled down toward the side of the cabin, Chambliss took a last glance in the door. “He’s just kneeling by the bed,” he told the others.
Allen hoped he was right and the Indian lost his nerve and ran out the back. If one of them had to go back into the cabin, they’d be within knife range. Of course they could Waco the place and burn it down. But the moron didn’t even have a single barrel twelve to give them an excuse, and nobody but a Buddhist monk committed suicide by burning themselves to death, no matter what Janet Reno said. Besides, the only gasoline on the place was in the Suburban’s tank. He hadn’t even seen so much as a kerosene lantern.
So let him run out the back, Allen decided. He moved along in no particular hurry. If the rube bolted toward the lake, Allen had a good clean shot for at least 75 yards. Keeping close to the structure to avoid being seen from the side windows, the agent came around the chimney headed for the back corner of the cabin.
This was going to be easy.
Charlie Quintard waited, nestled into the back angle of the chimney. He had to do this quietly. He couldn’t brain him with his tomahawk and he couldn’t just slit the agent’s throat. Contrary to the movies, both of those means of taking out a sentry were audible for some distance. If he tried either, Charlie would be heard in the front.
When Allen was at a 45 degree angle to his front and left, Charlie seized the agent’s head and pulled it to the left as he brought the knife HARD through the back of his neck and into the medulla oblongata. He violently moved the knife back and forth, “scrambling his eggs” as someone once said. The result was instant and virtually silent incapacitation. Allen didn’t have time to do anything but twitch, and die. Charlie removed his knife and lowered Allen’s body to the ground, half turning him as he did so so he could reach the agent’s face. He then took a second or two to silently carve up ATF Special Agent Hank Allen’s face with horizontal and lateral strokes of the knife and to separate his nose and ears from his head. The agent’s dead eyes were still wide in surprise when Charlie Quintard moved quietly away from him, angling away from the cabin toward the river and the nearest brush.
He was deep into the trees when the first horrified shouts heralded the discovery of Allen’s body.
Well, you know what’s wrong with the world today?
People done gone and put their Bibles away.
They’re livin’ by the law of the jungle not the law of the land.
Well the Good Book says, and I know its the truth,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
You’d better watch where you go
And remember where you’ve been.
That’s the way I see it, I’m a simple man.
Carmichael was scared and angry. God, was there NOTHING simple about this Gordon case?
It was obvious now what had happened to the first team. This bastard’s act had conned them all, including him. But there was no way he was going to chase this guy, this Indian, this WARRIOR, into the brush on his own home turf with just four other guys. We’d be picked off one by one. And Carmichael, sheepdog turned wolf or not, intended to live to collect his pension. Or at least, he reflected, to escape to a non-extradition country if we don’t win what is rapidly turning into a civil war.
Carmichael tried his cell phone again. No signal. They’d lost radio contact when they came down off the mountain to the lake. Besides, there was all kinds of interference these days. The smart boys in DC said it was deliberate jamming by radio operators and commo hackers who were sympathetic to killer gun nuts like Gordon. And only tactical teams had the good satellite phones. This was supposed to be a milk run.
And now there was this “Dead Man’s Hollow.” Was that where the Indian was headed?
Would they find the dead from the first team there?
Did it even exist?
Was it all a lie?
“Back to the Suburban,” he ordered. “We’ll come back with more people. Leave Allen. We’ll get him when we come back.”
The other agents sagged in relief. The last thing they wanted to do was handle that bloody corpse. Allen’s mutilation had shocked them in a way that even those among them who had been combat veterans in another life couldn’t get their minds around.
This was AMERICA. We’re the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT. This isn’t supposed to happen to one of US.
Of course, this was exactly the effect Charlie Quintard had in mind when he did it. Scared men, jumpy men, make mistakes. And at five to one, Charlie needed all the help he could make for himself.
Chambliss had policed up Allen’s weapons. Funny thing about that, Carmichael thought, the Indian had left the dead agent’s M-4 and pistol. Didn’t he know how to use them?
As Charlie ran through the woods, he was making a mental inventory of his options and an evaluation of his enemy much like Carmichael. Quintard had his knife, his ‘hawk, his primitive bow and a quiver which held a dozen flint-tipped arrows. He stopped briefly to string his bow, then he was off again at a lope, circling around to the road the Suburban had come in on. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to use firearms. It was just that he was BETTER with the weapons he carried. He’d been living with them, and by them, for more than five years now. When you eat only as well as you can hunt, you get good at it. That’s what made his skill at the bow.
As for the knife and the ‘hawk, he was also good in close with them. The only social occasions he attended away from his cabin were centered around edged weapons and primitive close combat skills. He sold the knives he made and the flint arrowheads he napped to other primitive hunters and frontier re-enactors. For the past five years his life had worked like this.
Every so often he’d hike out to the main road and thumb a ride into the Double Springs Post Office. Once there, he’d pick up his mail, cash his postal money orders, and mail off the products of his labor to a growing customer base. After that, he’d go down to the library to scan the newspapers and magazines. Jill Shipman, the librarian, had taken Charlie under her wing sometime before and she let him buy new books on the library discount card and would always save any discards she thought he might like, selling them to him for a quarter apiece. After the library, Charlie would head to the Piggly Wiggly (he hated and shunned WalMart) and pick up items for his larder. Every now and then, he would go to the Ace Hardware for a tool, or some nails. When he was done, he’d hire the Piggly Wiggly stock boy to drive him back home with his plunder in the stock boy’s pickup.
Ten or twelve times a year, a buddy would come by to pick him up and together they’d go to a mountain man rendezvous or a re-enactment like Fort Mims way down state near Mobile. They’d camp rough and compete in edged weapons contests — with wooden knives and ‘hawks in hand-to-hand matches, and with cold steel in throws for accuracy. Throwing or hand-to-hand, there were few better than Charlie Quintard.
Charlie had never joined the army. Those few who knew him thought that was probably a good thing. Putting up with the Army’s idea of discipline was not in Charlie Quintard’s internal makeup. He had self-discipline of course. Anyone who hunts for subsistence or ekes by his life on the thin bounty of the north Alabama woods is a model of patient discipline.
In the peacetime Army, Charlie Quintard would have been an abject failure as a soldier.
In a war, well, somewhere in those Cherokee genes of his lurked a warrior.
Charlie had learned that about himself. You see, the meth heads that Phil Gordon had run off came back about a year afterward, after Charlie had settled in. They had guns, Charlie had a knife and his trusty ‘hawk. (He was still partly on the grid then, and he hadn’t yet acquired his primitive bow.)
The meth heads laughed, and then died in terminal surprise as Charlie first evaded and then caught them up close one or two at a time. There were eight of them. After disabling their vehicles, it had taken him two days. It was the first time he showed anyone the way to Dead Man’s Holler, which was in fact a real place.
The first ATF team had been the second.
This was the third.
So yes, Charlie Quintard had learned the way of the warrior.
And there was something else that Charlie Quintard had learned. There are no obsolete weapons. There are only obsolete ways of employing them – obsolete tactics, if you will. An English longbowman of the 14th Century, if transplanted to the 21st, could still kill a man at distance. He just wouldn’t stand in a row in an open field to do it like he had at Agincourt or Crecy.
In fact, in a technological society that placed gunfire detectors everywhere in its cities, there was an argument to be made that a “primitive” weapon which was essentially silent might be of increased utility despite the fact that it had been invented a couple of millenia before.
Also, when you grabbed a man by his belt buckle, a knife or a ‘hawk was just as good a way to kill him as any other.
All this Charlie knew. And he knew one other thing. The only way this was going to work was if they just disappeared like the first bunch. He had to get them all before they were able to climb out of the dead zone that kept them from communicating with their bosses back in Birmingham.
He was, Charlie Quintard knew, going to have to take them to Dead Man’s Holler.
That thought took him as far as the big tree above the road cut. The road, like almost all roads in Winston County, had first been an animal track, then an Indian trail, a wagon road and finally a one lane passage for automobiles and logging trucks. Over the years it had worn down until it was a cut at least three feet deep along the length of it leading back to the cabin.
What the ATF didn’t know was that this was actually the old road to Dead Man’s Hollow, although you wouldn’t find it on any modern map. The road had run past the Gordon homestead, turned left just about where the boat dock jutted out into Smith Lake and snaked up the bluff for about 800 yards before it descended toward the old river bed and Dead Man’s Hollow. When the Alabama Power Company built the dam in the Thirties and Smith Lake had backed up behind it, the rising waters filled up to just below the bluff, where the old road now dead-ended.
So the only way out was past this old pine and Charlie, figuring that sooner or later he’d find himself at this moment, had not only chopped the tree partway through, he’d left the axe nearby so, if needed, he could finish the job without delay. Dropping his weapons, he snatched up the axe and attacked the pine with a frenzy. He heard the Suburban start, and redoubled his efforts. Just as the ATF rounded the curve, the tree dropped with a mighty sustained craaaack and blocked the path. The gun cops’ vehicle was trapped.
The feds vented their fear and frustration by leaping from the Suburban and blasting away at where Charlie had been. The truth was that Allen’s ruined features and their sudden reversal of fortune had unnerved the agents. They wanted out of here NOW and they thought they could shoot their way clear of this wimp who had somehow transmogrified into an invisible deadly menace.
The truth also was that here, for the first time in his career, Carmichael lost control of his men.
Without orders, two of them, Furlong and James, clambered up the bank to get at Charlie and finish this thing. As they appeared at the top of the road cut only 25 yards separated them from Charlie Quintard, sheltered behind another big pine. Their heads popped into view first.
In an instant, Furlong pitched backward with the fletching of an arrow in his left eye and a piece of flint on a broken stick protruding out the back of his brain pan.
James, right beside him, turned his head to look at his friend fall long enough to get a similar arrow through his jugular, slicing down, chipping the clavicle and then, thanks to the angle of the shot, skewering his heart. He fell dead in the brush at the top of the road cut, his booted feet hanging at an angle over the road.
Carmichael was seized by panic and wonder. Damn! Nobody can shoot a bow and arrow that fast! Could they? Are there two of them? More than two? For the first time in his life, Carmichael had the feeling he wasn’t going to be alive when the sun came up tomorrow. He didn’t like the feeling.
He wasn’t a religious man but Carmichael realized with a start that if there was a God of Abraham, He wouldn’t be too pleased about some of the ATF supervisor’s recent work. And Carmichael did not think that he would get a chance to amend his life after today.
It was unbelievable. Focus, dammit. Get a grip. Carmichael struggled to regain command of himself. How do we beat this guy? Look at our advantages. We outnumber him, but he’s already cut us down by half. We’ve got automatic rifles and submachine guns. He’s just got a bow, some arrows, a knife and maybe that tomahawk. But after losing 3 guys that didn’t look like such a big deal either. We’ve got flash bangs, but they’re not so effective out in the open.
Carmichael realized with a start that he was gazing at Furlong on the road with an arrow sticking out of his eye. Helmets. Yeah, they had ACH’s in the back of the Suburban. Why hadn’t he made his people use them? And CS grenades and gas masks. They were also in the back. We’ve been dancing to his tune, Carmichael thought. Time to change the dynamic and make him dance to ours.
They were all on the far side of the Suburban from where Charlie had fired the arrows. Chambliss was up near the front tire, Duncan in the middle and Carmichael at the rear bumper. A plan formed in Carmichael’s fevered brain.
It would work. It had to work.
Charlie also had a plan, and he knew he would have to waste at least one arrow to make it work. When he saw Duncan open the driver’s side passaenger door on the far side, he fired arrow number three into the passenger door on his side with a loud thunk that made the remaining agents duck. Then he moved.
Bastard, thought Carmichael. Thanks for telling me your position. When Duncan emerged from the interior of the Suburban, he brought helmets, gas masks and all the CS grenades they had. Carmichael told his remaining men what he wanted done. All together. No holding back. They nodded. Then they donned the gas masks and helmets.
When Carmichael judged they were ready, he first threw a CS grenade at the top of the bank to mask their movement. The wind, such as it was, carried the CS cloud slowly away from the road and toward Charlie’s position. Then they emerged from behind the vehicle, and threw six more CS grenades in an arc along their front creating a growing bank of the choking gas. Last, they threw their flashbangs into the murk. As they released the last of the flashbangs, Carmichael and Chambliss began to clamber up the bank while Duncan stood and fired suppressing bursts to pin Charlie Quintard in place behind his tree.
It was a good plan, if a bit desperate. If they had kept their heads and done it before Furlong and James had bought the farm it might have worked.
The only problem was – Charlie wasn’t there.
Duncan’s first intimation that this was so came when a flint-tipped arrow entered just above and slightly to the right of his anus and penetrated his scrotum, one of his testicles and the base of his penis. It appeared in the lower edge of his peripheral vision, sticking out of his fly like some stone age parody of an erection. Duncan lost all interest in suppressive fire. In fact, he dropped his weapon, fell to his knees, clasped his hands around the gory arrow and his ruined manhood, and began to scream.
By the time Carmichael’s brain registered that scream and concluded that something was terribly wrong with Duncan behind him, somebody hit him hard in the kidneys and his body armor sprouted a similar arrow from his lower back. Then Chambliss, stopping his climb and turning to see what all the fuss was about, took one through his right thigh laterally and slid back down the bank, adding his screaming to Duncan’s.
HE’S BEHIND US, Carmichael’s brain screamed at him.
For a man who was as frightened and disoriented as Carmichael at this moment, he actually did rather well. He glimpsed Charlie about to loose another arrow at him. In fact, all he saw was the top part of Charlie’s bow and the head and shoulders behind it.
It was enough. He raised his MP-5 and let off a long burst that emptied it.
For the uninitiated and untrained, full automatic fire is of limited utility except when fighting the Peoples Liberation Army in an alley. Absent divine intervention or uncommon luck, at anything except short ranges 99 shots out of a hundred will miss. So it was here with Carmichael’s burst at Charlie Quintard. Of course Charlie’s decision to hold the arrow shot and duck behind the tree when he saw the MP-5 start to rise was also a big factor in his continued existence on the planet.
Whew, that was close, he thought with relief. Time to go.
Charlie dropped to the forest floor out of sight of the men in the road cut and began to crawl away. Behind him, Carmichael changed magazines and, keeping low, turned toward the chorus of screams.
Chambliss had made his way over to the shelter of the Suburban and was fumbling with a battle dressing. Duncan just stayed where the arrow had found him, screaming on and on. Carmichael took it all in at a glance. Realizing Duncan could help him no longer and desperately craving silence to think, Carmichael came up behind the agent, drew his pistol and, placing the muzzle just below the back lip of the wounded man’s ACH, blew his brains out. Duncan spasmed and fell over on his side in the road, his agony of no further concern to anybody, including him.
Chambliss watched him dully, wondering despite the pain if Carmichael was going to do him too. He wasn’t. Not yet.
But what he was going to do was get the hell out of this killing zone. First, if Chambliss is going to be of use, that arrow has got to come out. Carmichael knelt down and without warning grabbed the business end of the arrow that was sticking out from Chambliss’ thigh and broke it off. Chambliss, not unexpectedly, screamed once more. Then, Carmichael grabbed the fletching sticking out of the other side and jerked the arrow free, a greasy tongue of blood trying to follow along. Using his combat knife, he cut the uniform pants away from the wound, then took the battle dressing from Chambliss’ shaking hand and applied it. Then he had Chambliss pull the arrow out of his body armor.
“Ready to travel?” Carmichael asked.
Chambliss replied, “Yeah. Where?”
“We’re going back down to the lake and see if this prick has a boat.”
The Suburban motor still ticked over. Carefully, staying as low as possible, they got Chambliss in the front passenger side. Carmichael moved around the vehicle to take the wheel. As he passed Charlie’s third arrow sticking out of the door, he angrily broke it off.
Stone age weapons. Shit.
If he got out of this, he was going to have this place nuked.
Suddenly, randomly, a memory from the Nineties welled up. He had helped execute a search warrant on a member of the American Indian Movement. The old Sioux woman had a bumpersticker on her refrigerator door: “Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt.”
Carmichael had thought it funny then.
He didn’t now.
Gaining the driver’s seat, he slammed the door and threw the Suburban into reverse, running over the bodies of Furlong and Duncan in the mad dash down to the lake.
Charlie heard the screaming and heard the shot. In the silence that followed there was only one conclusion to draw. Damn, they’re killing their own wounded. OK, so there were maybe two of them left. At least one of those was wounded, for he heard other, different screams after the shot. They’ll go for the lake now. He knew it.
Even so, he waited for the Suburban to move as proof of his guess. Yeah, the SUV was faster than he was, but he had a straight line to run to get down there, while the Suburban had to stick to the snaky road. The Suburban moved, and Charlie Quintard began to run.
What if there wasn’t a boat? Carmichael wondered as he backed frantically down the road. The Indian didn’t have a car, why would he have a boat? In retrospect, Carmichael couldn’t believe how stupid he’d been, how arrogant and ignorant. He’d completely misread the Indian and mishandled the whole deal. Why didn’t we search the whole place, including the dock? I’d know if there was a boat then. Forget that. There HAD to be a boat there, so there must be one. It was the last thread he clung to. He really, really didn’t want to die here beside this godforsaken cabin.
And, after a fashion, he got his wish.
There were large privet bushes blocking the path of the Suburban from the dock, and they also blocked Carmichael’s view of the lake. In his panic, Carmichael failed to note that what appeared to be a driveway that dead ended at the privet actually turned to the left and went up the bluff. If he’d known he wouldn’t have cared. It was the lake that beckoned him. It was only on the lake that he might escape this uncanny, vengeful Indian with his deadly stone age weapons. The lake would save him.
When the Suburban stopped, Carmichael leaped from it with his MP-5. His intention was to leave the hobbled Chambliss to the Indian’s tender mercies and thus buy himself enough time to escape.
Chambliss tumbled from the vehicle too and realized instantly what the plan was. “Wait!” he had time to yell, then went down as another of Charlie’s arrows hit him in the buttocks and drove through to sever the femoral artery in his left leg.
Chambliss pitched forward on his face, out of the fight. He wasn’t dead yet, but he would be shortly. Roger Chambliss gave himself up to the idea, and spent his last minutes on earth thinking about his wife and kids and what an idiot he’d been not to listen to Carol when she’d begged him to get out of the ATF after Sipsey Street. When he went to meet his Maker, it was in fear that he would receive what he deserved.
Carmichael saw Chambliss go down and he realized belatedly that Charlie had been firing low to hit them where they weren’t covered by helmet or body armor. As he ran from the Suburban toward and around the privet and heading for the dock, he loosed off a burst toward the cabin where Charlie must be sheltering.
Charlie was on the side of the cabin away from the Suburban and moving to the rear so he could get a shot at Carmichael if he showed himself in the direction of the lake. The same cleared space that Agent Allen had intended to use against him now worked in his favor. Carmichael would not be able to get down there without exposing himself to Charlie’s bow.
Even so, Carmichael tried. The first arrow missed, the second hit Carmichael in the right bicep breaking his upper arm and pinning it it to his body armor. He staggered, but kept going. The next arrow also missed, but the fourth hit him in the ankle and swept him from his feet, and he landed hard still well short of the dock. The pain was excruciating.
Charlie was down to one arrow, which was nocked and ready to fly. There were more in the cabin, but for right now, this was it.
Carmichael still had his MP-5 and his pistol, but his ability to use them was strictly limited by his injuries. He never practiced weak-side shooting, thinking he’d never need it. He doubted he could even get to his pistol with his left hand and while he could spray and pray with the MP-5, he doubted he could hit Charlie unless he presented himself meekly for execution.
This did not seem likely.
So Carmichael did the only thing left to him that he could think of.
“HEY!” he yelled. “Hey! I surrender! Don’t shoot me anymore!” With his left hand he fumbled with the attachment point of the MP-5’s sling.
“Throw away your guns!” responded Charlie. “I’m trying,” said Carmichael weakly. Finally, he unhooked the subgun and tossed it away. He tried to reach the pistol and couldn’t. He told Charlie so.
“All right. Just keep quiet and don’t move,” Charlie ordered. He moved up to the wounded Carmichael. Careful, Charlie told himself. Carmichael seemed deep into an appreciation of his pain, but it could be an act. He approached from Carmichael’s wounded right side, dropped his bow and drew his knife. He held the knife to Carmichael’s throat while he stripped him of his pistol and tossed it away. Then he did the same with the ATF man’s combat knife. He was about to help Carmichael up when he spotted something familiar sticking out of his combat pants’ cargo pocket.
It was his medicine bag. Carmichael saw Charlie Quintard’s eyes narrow. He had taken it from Duncan on a lark, a souvenir he was going to give to his wife. But now he saw the look on Quintard’s face and thought he saw a door closing.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” said Charlie. He paused. “I wish you hadn’t shot Push too.”
“You said you wouldn’t shoot me,” Carmichael pleaded.
“I’m not going to shoot you,” Charlie said in a hard, flat voice, “I’m going to take you to Dead Man’s Holler.”
Carmichael felt relief wash through him. “Where is it?” he asked.
Charlie ignored him. He stripped off Carmichael’s helmet, webgear, and body armor with the ATF man alternately yelling and weeping in pain. He also broke off the arrows sticking out of Carmichael. He shreiked when the Indian did that.
“I gotta get to a doctor,” Carmichael pleaded.
“You’ll get a Doctor when you get to Dead Man’s Holler,” replied Charlie. “Where’s your flexcuffs?”
“I don’t carry them. I’m a supervisor. Chambliss might have some.”
Charlie grunted. “Don’t move,” he ordered.
Carmichael, holding onto the hope of Dead Man’s Hollow, did as he was told. Policing up Carmichael’s weapons and his own bow as he went, Charlie went over to Chambliss’ still form by the Suburban. He was dead. He also had two pairs of flexcuffs.
Leaving the weapons on the ground, Charlie returned to Carmichael and, pulling the zipties tight, he cuffed the ATF man’s hands and feet.
“Hey!” protested Carmichael, “You don’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I do,” said Charlie. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Don’t go anywhere,” he said with a faint smile.
The ATF agent cursed, gritting his teeth in pain.
In less than five minutes, Carmichael heard the Suburban drive away. And after a long half hour, it came back. Charlie appeared and hoisted Carmichael, first to his feet and then in a fireman’s carry onto Quintard’s back.
Even through his pain, Carmichael marveled at the Indian’s strength. Damn, I’m twice his size and he tosses me around like a pillow.
When they got around the privet bushes, Carmichael saw the Suburban was stacked with the bodies of his men, across the width of the back floor and seat. They had been systematically stripped of their weapons, helmets, body armor, radios and load bearing vests. Quintard had even taken their boots. Charlie set him down by the front passenger door, which was open. He was none too gentle and Carmichael screamed. Then Charlie picked him up and put him in the passenger seat. Taking one of the dead agent’s belts he had scavenged, Quintard ran it through a bracket on the seat and the flex cuffs on Carmichael’s legs, connecting the two.
“I’ll drive,” he said with another one of those enigmatic half-smiles.
The Suburban smelled of blood, shit and brains as it ground its way up the bluff road toward Dead Man’s Holler. Every bounce was a purgatory of pain for Carmichael. Charlie Quintard was humming, but Carmichael couldn’t make out the tune. Finally, they came to the top, crested the bluff and began to go down. A few hundred yards later they were staring at the lake, which was about fifty yards down the hill. Charlie stopped the vehicle and set the parking brake.
Before he got out, Charlie put down the all of the door windows in the vehicle about 2 inches or so. He took two more belts and secured the steering wheel.
Carmichael finally realized in horror what was about to happen. “You can’t!” he shouted at Charlie.
“Hey,” said Charlie, “None of that. You said you wanted to go to Dead Man’s Holler and here we are. You see, it got its name from being a deep ravine down by the old river bed where, every now and again back in the 1800s, somebody would dump a dead man’s body in it. When Smith Lake backed up over it after they built the dam, it filled up with water and became the deepest part of the lake. Phil Gordon’s family homestead used to be down there. And that’s where yer goin’.”
“YOU CAN’T!” screamed Carmichael.
Charlie Quintard looked at him without remorse. “That’s what I said just before you killed my dog.” Charlie reached in, pulled the brake release and slammed the door as the Suburban surrendered to the force of gravity and began to trundle down the road toward the water.
“NO!” he heard Carmichael scream, just before the vehicle hit the water with a huge splash and glided farther out into the lake just about dead center over Dead Man’s Hollow. As the SUV began to settle into its final plunge, Charlie wondered if Carmichael knew why he called it ‘Dead Man’s Holler’ instead of ‘Dead Man’s Hollow’. Quintard was educated enough to know the correct pronunciation. Yeah, he spoke natural Winston County southern, so Hollow would normally come out ‘Holler’ anyway.
But he called it Dead Man’s Holler for another reason.
Just as the SUV nosed down into its final dive, the dead man inside started to holler, “NOOOOO!”
He did so, until he ran out of air somewhere just short of the bottom of Smith Lake.
Charlie turned and walked back up the bluff. He still had to bury Pushmataha. Even so, he was humming.
Well the Good Book says, and I know its the truth,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
You’d better watch where you go
And remember where you’ve been.
That’s the way I see it, I’m a simple man.
(To be continued . . .)