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Authors: Joe R. Lansdale

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BOOK: Sunset and Sawdust
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Sunset didn’t know how good a shot she was. She might hit him from where she was, but if she missed, well, there would be a blazing gun battle. She figured that happened, she would wind up on the bad end of the program. Already Smoky had one man dead, one man crippled, one mule harvested. A redheaded woman wearing a constable’s badge wouldn’t be much of a reach.

She put her gun away, said, “Smoky.”

Smoky turned his head slowly, like it didn’t matter. She couldn’t see his features, just a black face in shadows and screen flickers.

“My name is Sunset. I’m the constable over at Camp Rapture.”

“That the sawmill place?” Smoky said.

“Yes.”

“You’re a woman.”

“Everyone seems to notice.”

“You sure you the sheriff?”

“Constable. Almost the same thing. I’m supposed to bring you out and they’re going to arrest you. That’s the way it has to be.”

“They’re gonna hang me. Cut my balls off first, make me suffer. I seen it done once. They even set the man on fire before they hanged him.”

“I’m not going to let that happen.”

“That’s what you say.”

“I got some men out there will help me see it don’t happen.”

“They gonna give me the ’lectric chair.”

“You’ll get a fair trial.”

“Colored don’t get fair trials.”

“You killed a man, Smoky.”

“Didn’t have nothing against that sheriff. He was a good man. Just wanted to watch a picture show. Ain’t never seen one. Ought to be able to watch a picture show. They could have a colored section. They could put a curtain up between us and them or something. Wouldn’t have to see our faces.”

“You don’t go with me, do it my way, Smoky, you will be lynched.”

“They’ll kill me anyway. Nice and legal.”

“Not with your pants down, cut up and tortured. Everyone seeing you humiliated. You want that?”

Smoky turned back to the movie. “I don’t regret that ole grocer none. And I don’t like mules either.”

Sunset eased forward, slipped into the seat behind Smoky.

“You let me finish the picture show?” Smoky asked.

“I can arrange that.”

“I’ll keep the shotgun till then.”

“I’ll tell them outside,” Sunset said.

“That ain’t a real mustache, is it?”

“What?”

“Not you. That fella, in the movie, he ain’t got a real mustache, does he?”

Sunset looked at the screen. “I think it’s painted on.”

“That’s what I thought. That’s supposed to be funny, ain’t it?”

“I’ll go out now, talk to them.”

“I had to start that thing up there, what’s it called, a camera?”

“Projector, I think.”

“Had to do that so I could see it from the first. Figured it out. I was always good figuring stuff like that out. I could have worked here.”

“I’ll be going out now, Smoky.”

“I rubbed my ass around in this seat real good, gave it a real dose of nigger butt, that’s what I did. Don’t tell them which seat. That way someone’s got to sit in it.”

“We’ll keep it between me and you.”

Sunset stood up slowly and walked out of the theater.

Rooster said, “Really think he’s gonna let you take him when that picture’s over? Whatever he’s been drinking, you been drinking some of it too.”

“Why don’t we have you get him a little picnic lunch when you go back in,” Morgan said. “Some chicken and light bread. Maybe some pie.”

“Might not be a bad idea,” Sunset said. “Hillbilly, go over to the cafe, see can you rustle up something already cooked. Tell them the law will pay for it. Have them sign a receipt or something.”

Hillbilly started slogging across the mud.

“Which law is gonna pay for it?” Rooster asked.

“Your town, your bill,” Sunset said.

“Can’t believe you’re gonna go back in there,” Morgan said. “And with a goddamn picnic lunch.”

“Beats a shoot-out,” Sunset said.

“I’ll go back in with you,” Clyde said.

“I don’t want to scare him, make him think I’m going back on my word.”

“Why don’t we show him an extra picture, maybe a cartoon,” Morgan said. “Hell, woman, why don’t you offer him a piece?”

Before Sunset could respond to that, Clyde hit Morgan on the jaw with his fist. Morgan did a kind of hop, twisted, fell face forward into the pile of mule dung, next to the dead mule’s ass.

“He was building up to that,” Clyde said, “and finally he got there.”

“Give him about half a minute,” Sunset said. “Then pull him out so he can breathe.”

“People seen you do that,” Rooster said. “They seen you hit an officer of the law, Clyde.”

“Yeah,” Clyde said. “Think they did. But since I’m kind of an officer of the law, maybe that evens it out.”

Hillbilly came hustling across the mud with a plate covered with a red-and-white-check napkin.

“I had to get this off of a fella’s plate. He didn’t like it none. I didn’t get nothing to drink. It’s just chicken and biscuits.”

“Let me have it,” Sunset said, and started back inside.

“What happened to Morgan there?” Hillbilly asked.

“Fainted,” Clyde said.

When Sunset disappeared into the theater, Rooster said, “I think Morgan has been in that mule shit for a whole minute or two now.”

“Reckon you’re right,” Clyde said.

“We ought to turn him,” Rooster said.

“I’m studying on it.”

Inside, Sunset gave Smoky the chicken and biscuits. He took it and ate, watched the picture. She looked at the movie but couldn’t hear it. Her ears wouldn’t listen. All she could think about was Smoky and the shotgun. She quietly pulled the pistol and laid it in her lap, her hand on it.

When the movie was over Smoky set the plate on the floor in the aisle, stood up and gave Sunset the shotgun.

“It ain’t loaded nohow,” Smoky said. “Was, I’d have shot myself. I just had them shells I used. I shouldn’t have shot the sheriff.”

“Let’s go on out, Smoky.”

“I did get to see me a picture show.”

“You did,” Sunset said.

“Maybe I ought to shut the projector off.”

“That’s all right. Someone else will do it.”

They went up the aisle, and when they got to the door, Smoky paused at the sheriff’s body.

“Happened so fast,” he said. “Brought the gun up and shot him. I didn’t even think about it.”

While they were pausing at the door, Sunset said, “Clyde. Hillbilly. Y’all come and help me.”

With Smoky between Clyde and Hillbilly, they walked him to the police car where Rooster stood, pistol drawn. Morgan was up, sitting on the sidewalk. There was mule shit on his face. Macavee was in the back of the police car, face caked with mud.

Smoky said, “They look like they come out of a minstrel show, their faces all darked up like that.”

“We’re taking Smoky with us,” Sunset said.

“Okay by me,” Rooster said.

Sunset reached inside her shirt, pulled out the slap jack, gave it to Clyde, said, “Okay, Smoky, start moving.”

They plodded through the mud, past the grumbling white crowd and the quietly observing negroes.

“Them peckerwoods just gonna break me out of jail and kill me,” Smoky said.

“You’re not going to this jail,” Sunset said.

They walked him to the truck, sat him in the truck bed with Clyde and his shotgun. Hillbilly drove them out of there with only the slightest grinding of gears.

Hillbilly said, “That was a brave thing you done.”

“Maybe.”

“Where we taking him?”

“Tyler.”

Hillbilly reached over, touched Sunset’s hand. “You are one brave woman,” he said.

It was a good distance to Tyler, and by the time they got Smoky delivered to the jail, it was dark.

Clyde drove on the way back, not liking Hillbilly’s motoring style. When they pulled into the yard, the truck lights shone on the big black-and-white dog standing near the water pump. It darted into the woods.

“Poor thing,” Sunset said. “I’ll put some food out.”

“You’ll have a dog you do,” Clyde said.

“That’s not so bad,” Sunset said.

Hillbilly got out, held out his hand, helped Sunset down.

“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Hillbilly said.

“Good night, Sunset,” Clyde said.

“I’m not much of a law having to depend on a borrowed truck,” she said. “What happens things go wrong at night?”

“Hope they don’t,” Clyde said. “Come on, Hillbilly. Let’s go. I got to get some sleep. And you hold on to her hand too long, it’s likely to come off.”

“See you tomorrow,” Hillbilly said again.

Clyde drove them away.

Sunset noticed the dog lying under a big oak, his head on his paws, looking at her.

“Come on, boy,” she said. “Come on.” But the dog didn’t budge.

She walked toward him slowly, and he still didn’t move. But when she was within ten feet of him, he jumped up and growled, then scampered into the woods.

Sunset sighed, stopped to study the stars she could see through the tall tops of the trees. Now that the rain had passed the sky was void of clouds and the stars stood out clear and bright as the eyes of a newborn. She could see shapes in the sky made by the stars and she tried to find the Big Dipper, but there were too many trees. She could only see a small pattern of stars and none of them seemed to be the Big Dipper, or the Little Dipper, for that matter.

Inside the tent, Karen was sleeping. Her breathing was loud and even. The dress she had put on that morning was draped over the back of a chair. She lay on the mattress with the covers pulled over her head, the lantern sitting on the floor, glowing with what kerosene was left.

Sunset hated to see the kerosene wasted when not needed. Too expensive. But she made a mental note not to say anything about it. Not unless it happened again.

She pulled off her shirt and skirt, tossed them on the chair with Karen’s clothes. She had quit wearing slips and girdles, a real scandal in these parts. She thought as constable she might need to move fast, and too many undergarments hindered that. It was comfortable to sit on the edge of the mattress on the floor in her bra and panties.

Thinking about the day, she trembled, thought: Good Lord, woman, when did you get so bold? What if Smoky had had another shell for his shotgun and decided not to use it on himself? What then?

She blew out the lamp, climbed under the covers, tried to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come.

She lay there for a time, heard movement outside, around the tent. She suspected the dog.

She slipped on her skirt and blouse, picked up her pistol, eased to the opening, gently untied the flap. She took several deep breaths, then flipped the flap back and stepped barefoot into the night.

The dog wasn’t there, but she did see a figure moving into the woods, quickly. A man. A very large man. She yelled, “Who is it?” but there was no answer, just the buzz of a mosquito in her ear.

Looking down, she saw an empty milk bottle next to the tent opening. Inside it was a rolled piece of paper.

Sunset studied the woods for a while, finally picked up the bottle, went inside, tied the flap shut. She went to the business side of the tent, behind the curtain of blankets and quilts, put the pistol on the table, lit the lamp there, shook the rolled paper from the bottle.

She spread the paper on the tabletop.

smokey my cuzin—got tole whad yew did—yew dun rite—yew wuz rite by Smokey—he’z goner git whad he dun got fer hisself bud you dun dun good by hem and i have you no i hep you any tym yew needs it i is yers to cal on fer any kines of thangs—ther all kines of thangs i no.

Bull

Bull. She had heard of Bull. If it was the same man, and surely it was. How many Bulls were there? His name was Bull Thomas, and he was a big black man that lived deep in the woods. Said to be well over six foot tall and over three foot wide, and when you found his footprints in the woods, the size boot he wore had to be at least a twenty-two. Because of that, it was said he made his own boots. She had even heard rumor that the boots were made out of a white man’s ass. Guy wandered onto his property, and Bull shot him and made those boots.

Sunset smiled as she thought about that. Who had survived to tell this tale? Was it the white man? Wounded, his ass cut off, crawling out of the woods to tell the tale?

Story was, Bull’s land was booby-trapped, and so was his house. He had set it up that way some years ago when Klan members decided he was too uppity. They had rode horseback through the dense woods out to his place to teach him a lesson. One of the horses got in a bear trap and had to be shot on the spot. One of the Knights of the White Carnation fell in a pit and broke his leg, and Bull shot another one in the arm.

The Klan decided that Bull was more than they wanted, and had since let bygones be bygones because Bull had put out the word if he ever saw them again he’d shoot to kill, that he wasn’t impressed by their sheets, had sheets himself, but was smart enough to know they went on the bed, not over your head.

Bull was the only colored man Sunset knew of who could talk that way to white men and get away with it. Partly because he stayed back in the deeper parts of the woods on his booby-trapped property, and partly because he wasn’t frightened of much of anything and was willing to fight back, and partly because a lot of whites wanted to keep him happy and healthy because he was said to make the best whisky in these parts.

Sunset rolled the note up, shoved it back in the bottle. She found a flashlight, blew out the lantern, went to the other side of the tent and looked through her supplies. She found some hardened corn dodgers she had cooked up, took them outside and walked over to the oak where she had last seen the dog.

She put the corn dodgers on the ground, called for the dog. He didn’t come and she didn’t see or hear him. She gathered up the dodgers, went back and undressed, went to bed, the gun by her side.

It was a long time before she finally drifted off, dreaming about the poor baby, about Pete, and why he bothered to bury the child. She dreamed about the Marx Brothers movie, Smoky and the shotgun, the poor dead sheriff, the poor dead mule. Over and over, she could see herself pulling her pistol, really fast, fanning it against the back of Macavee’s jaw, and him going down face first in the mud, then Morgan getting punched by Clyde, falling face forward in what that mule had left.

BOOK: Sunset and Sawdust
12.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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