Carnal Innocence (Page 19)

Tucker didn't care to picture himself in a shoot-out. It just didn't sit right. As he sped back to Dead Possum Road, it occurred to him that this was the second time Austin had put him in the awkward position of carrying a gun.

It was damn irritating.

But he couldn't go back and sit on the porch, waiting for Burke and Carl to handle it. Not when he still had the picture of Cy's terrified face in his mind. Not when the scent of a young boy's fear was still hanging heavy in the car.

He'll cut my eyes out!

Where in Christ had the boy come up with that?

From his crazy, sick old man, Tucker concluded.

His face was set, his eyes the color of burnished bronze as he swung the car to the shoulder. He hefted the gun, then using the car as a shield, reached in the backseat for the binoculars Delia, and almost everyone else in Innocence, carried.

When he brought them up and focused, the concrete hump of the culvert jumped in front of his eyes. Slowly, he scanned, but saw nothing at the entrance, no movement along the slope of the Little Hope. Nothing in the field beyond.

He caught the glint of silver from the roofs of the mobile homes in the trailer park three miles away. Lowering his sights, he clearly saw Earleen's sister Laurilee step out of her trailor, take a swing from a can of Mountain Dew, and give a holler.

Calling the kids in for supper, Tucker thought absently, and slowly swung the binoculars away. He saw pigs rooting in the pen at Stokey's farm and the wash hanging on the line at the Marches', and a plume of dust toward town that might have been Burke riding out.

But on the fields and flats, nothing stirred. And the silence hung heavy, disturbed only by the stream croaking its way over rocks and mud and a few birds that sang disinterestedly in the hazy heat of the evening.

If Austin was waiting, he was waiting in the dim, dirty shadows of the culvert. There was only one way to find out.

Tucker took time to shove a few extra shells in his pocket, though he sincerely hoped he wouldn't have to use them. Keeping low, his eyes trained on the shallow entrance, he circled the culvert. When he got within five feet, he dropped down on his belly, the shotgun nestled on his shoulder.

"God, if You want to do me one favor in this lifetime, don't make me have to shoot this thing."

He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly.

"Austin! I reckon you know I'm out here." It wouldn't occur to him until later that his skin was bone dry, his hands rock steady. "You went to a lot of trouble to invite me out for a visit." He bellied his way to the slope of the bank. "Why don't you come on out and we can talk reasonable, or we can wait awhile until Burke comes along."

There was only silence from the culvert and the scream of a crow overhead.

"You're going to make it hard on me, Austin. I'm going to have to come in there, seeing as how you tormented that boy. I just can't swallow that. Then we're going to start shooting at each other, and one of us is likely to be dead." With a little sigh Tucker reached over and picked up a stone. "I sincerely don't want it to be me."

He tossed the rock down and waited for the ripping report of a gun. Silence.

"Shit on toast," Tucker muttered, and slid down the slope into the stingy trickle of the Little Hope. There was a roaring in his head now, a steady wall of sound that was his heart and his fury. He swung the shotgun around and charged the entrance, fully expecting to be dodging bullets.

But the culvert was empty. Tucker stood there, feeling more than a little foolish with his shotgun at the ready and his heart beating like a brass band. He could hear his own rushing breaths bouncing off the concrete. "Okay," he said quietly. "Okay, there was nobody around to see you make an ass of yourself." He started back toward the entrance, then stopped short.

Could Austin be hiding somewhere? Somehow have found a hole just big enough to crouch in? Was he waiting, just sitting out there for Tucker to come back out so he could pick him off?

That was stupid, Tucker assured himself, took another step, then stopped and swore.

It was better to be stupid than dead, he supposed, and wondered what the hell to do now. He had a ridiculous image of the final scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Newman and Redford had been freeze-framed in that last, hopeless gun battle.

The slick ending didn't fool Beau Longstreet's son Tucker. No indeedy. He knew just what had happened. Guns had fired, and Butch and the Kid had been blown to glory.

He stood in the narrow culvert thinking he was neither outlaw nor hero, but it was mighty hard on the pride just to huddle there and wait. Before he had to make the decision, he heard the rumble of a car, then the quick, sharp slam of doors. "Tucker! Tuck, you all right?"

"Down here, Burke." Tucker leaned the shotgun against the wall. "He ain't here."

He heard Burke give Carl orders to look around, then the light at the entrance was blocked by the sheriff's broad shoulders. "What the sweet fuck is going on here?"

"Well, son, I'll tell you," Tucker said, and did.

"Couldn't understand half of what that boy was saying." Burke offered Tucker a light for his half cigarette. "But he seemed damned sure you and his daddy were going to kill each other down here."

"I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or relieved we didn't have the chance to try. Cy's a good boy, Burke. Austin threatened him with some nasty shit, but he did what was right." He pulled in smoke, let it out slowly. "I'm thinking it might be best if he stayed on at Sweetwater for a while. Home's no place for him. If Austin didn't manage to get to him, Vernon will make him pay for this. I swear to Christ I don't see how that boy could be kin to either of them."

"With any luck Vernon won't hear about it for a day or two. Right now we'd better concentrate on finding his father." He nodded at Tucker. "I guess we can say you're already deputized."

"I'd just as soon you didn't." Tucker reached for the shotgun. It was then he noticed the scrawl of writing on the wall. "What the hell's this?" He leaned closer, squinting. "You're in my light, Burke," he said, then swore when he made the letters out.


"Christ almighty," Burke murmured as he rubbed his thumb against the first A. "Looks like he wrote it in blood. I'm going to call up some men. We'll do a house to house. We'll walk every inch of the county, but we're getting that crazy sonofabitch tonight."

He'll cut my eyes out!

Tucker pressed his fingers to his own eyes as Cy's terrified voice rang in his head. "I guess I'm going with you. Do I get one of those cheap tin stars?"

Within the hour Burke had fifteen able-bodied and willing men. It gave him some twinges of uneasiness to see Billy T. Bonny and Junior Talbot both standing around with rifles. He had to hope that the excitement of going after a fugitive would put personal feuds on the back burner. For safety's sake, he separated them, sending Junior off with Carl's group and keeping Billy T. with his own. He took a chance and put Jed Larsson, slow but sensible, in charge of a third.

Using a county map, he diced up territories.

"I don't want any hotdogging. Austin's got himself two weapons, and unless he's been taking potshots at rabbits, he's only used one bullet. I'd sure hate to end the day by having to go to somebody's wife or sweetheart and tell her that her man got himself shot by being stupid."

"We got ourselves more sense than those lard-ass county deputies." Billy T. was excited at the prospect of shooting something.

There was a lot of good-natured whooping to relieve nerves. Burke waited until it died down.

"The last time Austin was seen was right down there in that culvert. Now he's got at least an hour on us, and he's on foot. But a man who knows this country could find a lot of places to hide. We want him brought in, all in one piece. If you spot him, you give a call on the two-way. Your weapons are for defense only."

Several of the men slanted sly looks at one another. Austin wasn't a popular fellow.

"If he ends up dead, there'll be plenty of questions some of you might not like answering." He scanned faces, holding gazes just long enough to make his point. "You boys aren't going deer hunting, you are duly deputized public servants. Now, move out, and watch your butts." He turned away to gather his own group. "And God help us."

Five of them piled into the cruiser. Burke, Tucker, Billy T., Singleton Fuller, and Bucky Koons. Singleton immediately lit up one of the cigars Happy wouldn't let him smoke at home.

"You ain't called up the county boys, Burke," he said casually.

Burke's fingers flexed on the wheel. "No. It's our town."

There was a murmur of agreement through the curtain of foul-smelling smoke.

At the intersection of Old Cypress and Longstreet, which Burke had designated as Base A, he pulled to the shoulder. The spot had significance for Tucker, who flicked a glance in the rearview mirror. Billy T. met the look with surly eyes.

They separated there, three to go east with the cautious Singleton in charge, and Burke and Tucker to go west.

"You want to tell me what's cooking between you and Billy T.?" Burke asked as they started the wide circle that would bring them back as a group by McNair Pond.

"Oh, that's already boiled over and been mopped up." He sent an uneasy glance in the direction of Caroline's house. "You really figure he'd have gotten this far?"

"Can't figure. He could be off in any direction, and I could be making a mistake not calling in to county."

"Hell of a lot of good they did us last time."

"Well," Burke said, and left it at that. "Could be he headed off for home." He worried a minute about Carl and his group. "County's still got his house under surveillance, and he'd know it, but it doesn't sound to me like the man's thinking right."

Tucker figured the distance with some satisfaction. "I hope to hell that's just where he goes. They'll snatch him on up and take him off our hands." Tucker turned his head and pondered on the glint of Caroline's second-story windows. "It's not just that he's not thinking right, Burke. It's like he's gone rabid or something. That day we pounded on each other? He got to thinking I was my old man. He didn't want to kill me nearly so much as he wanted to kill old Beau."

He felt a hankering for a cigarette and struggled it back. "I'll tell you what I think. It wasn't me he wanted Cy to bring to that culvert, either."

Burke frowned. He didn't know a hell of a lot about psychology, unless you assumed that was the same as human nature. But he did understand that a man could do desperate things when a woman pushed him to the edge. Like hanging himself in his own barn.

"That's a long time to hold a grudge over a woman."

"Well, around Innocence, we got a surplus of time. My mama would get up and leave the room anytime his name came up. She did that right up until the end of her life." Tucker stopped while Burke scanned with binoculars. "It used to make me wonder. I asked Edda Lou once if Austin acted strange about her. She laughed." Now he did pull out a cigarette. "She said that he'd sometimes call her mama by my mama's name when he was slapping her around." A chill raced up his spine. "See anything?"

"Not a goddamn thing." Burke pulled out his walkie-talkie to check in with the other groups.

Tucker felt the chill again. He puffed on his cigarette and told himself it was only natural to feel uneasy when you were out hunting a man. Yet he caught himself, not looking over his shoulder, or squinting in the distance, but staring back at the glint of sun against Caroline's bedroom window.

Something was wrong. He could almost smell it, like a trace of ozone on the air after a slash of lightning. Something was sure as hell wrong.

"Burke, I want to cross over there to Caroline's."

"I already told you, Susie called her and told her to come on into town. They're probably sitting around the kitchen table talking about flower arrangements and wedding cakes."

"Yeah." Tucker rolled his shoulders as if trying to ease an itch. "But I want to cross over."

He was already moving fast when they heard the shots.

Caroline had corn bread in the oven. Happy Fuller's family recipe. She'd been finishing up the batter when Susie called. She wasn't fooled by the invitation to dinner, or the request that she come help talk some sense into Marvella over her color schemes. Austin Hatinger had been spotted less than ten miles away, and Susie didn't want her to be alone.

She appreciated the concern, and since she'd started to jump at every creak and shadow since the call, Caroline was more than willing to oblige. She didn't think Austin was going to show up on her doorstep. Certainly not. But as the sun dropped toward evening, she liked the idea of spending some time in Susie's safe and noisy kitchen.

She took a sniff of the air and smiled. The corn bread was nearly ready. Then she'd pack it up, along with Useless, and drive into town.

She took a look at the oven timer. Little more than five minutes, she saw, and pushed open the screen door to call her dog.

"Useless. Come on, boy." She clapped her hands as Happy had done and tried a whistle. "Useless, come on, Useless, we're going for a ride." Hearing the whimper under her feet, she got down on her hands and knees to look through the porch slats. And there he was crouched back against the new brace, whining.

"Dumb dog. Come on right now. What's got you so spooked?"

He let out two yips and cringed back against the new brace. Disgusted, Caroline sat back on her heels. "Probably saw a garter snake," she muttered. She decided to lure him out with a Milk Bone-Useless had already proven to have no willpower when it came to Milk Bones-and was pushing herself to her feet when she saw Austin Hatinger.

For an instant she thought it was her imagination. There could be no man walking across her backyard with two guns hitched in his belt and a knife in his hand. There could be no man crushing her newly planted pansies under his heel and smiling at her, smiling through frozen lips, smiling out of crazed, red-rimmed eyes.

She was still on her knees when he spoke. "God led me to you." The smile seemed to tear his face, like a rip through tattered burlap. "I understood His will. You were with him, I saw you with him, and you're to be sacrificed." He turned the knife blade in the sunlight as he approached the porch. "Like Edda Lou. It has to be just like Edda Lou."

Like a runner coming off the mark, Caroline pushed herself from her knees and slammed through the back door. She shoved it to, turned the bolt. The oven timer went off with a buzz that made her scream. Then Austin's weight rammed against the wood and set her numb legs free.

She didn't think. Fueled by instinct, she snatched up her grandfather's Colt on her flight from the kitchen. She needed to get to the car, but even as she raced through the house, she heard the old kitchen door give Way with a splinter of wood.

And she remembered that the gun she held in her slippery hand was empty.

Sobbing, she barreled through the front door, digging in her pocket. Bullets sprayed out of her sweaty fingers and she nearly lost her footing on the steps. She stumbled, righted herself, and saw that all four tires on her car had been slashed.

Austin swung open the screen door. "You can't run from the will of God. You are His instrument. An eye for an eye, saith the Lord."

But Caroline was already fleeing toward the swamp. Another bullet squirted out of her fingers like wet soap to be lost in the grass. Her scream was no more than a harsh breath of air.

"Stop it, stop it!" she ordered her shaking hands as she fought to get one bullet, then two into the chamber. "Oh, God, please." She was nearly to the trees, nearly there, and there was shelter and terror behind them. One desperate look over her shoulder, and he was less than two armspans behind her. With tears blurring her vision, she turned and fired.

The gun clicked on empty. And he smiled.

"Today you are the lamb of God." The knife arched up, glistening silver death. Caroline saw more than madness in his eyes. She saw a terrible glory.

Then Useless shot out like a small gold bullet and latched his puppy teeth into Austin's calf. Austin howled more in fury than pain. It took only one kick to send the dog lying bonelessly on the grass.

"Dear God," Caroline prayed, and with the gun braced in both hands, fired again. This time the kick knocked her limp body back. She lay stunned, staring at the horrible red stain that bloomed over Austin's dirty white shirt.

His smile was back, a rictus of a grin. He took another step toward her, the knife held high.

"Please, please, please," Caroline whimpered as the gun jerked in her hand again. With numbed horror she saw his face disappear. His big, brawny body twitched. To her terror-frozen brain, it seemed he was still coming, still walking implacably toward her. She scrambled back, screams hitching in her throat, heels digging furrows in the grass.

The knife fell at her feet, and Austin followed it.

Tucker skidded to a stop on the gravel drive. While his heart slammed in his throat, he watched Caroline weaving across the lawn, carrying the puppy. Beyond her he could see Austin sprawled facedown, and the blood staining the grass.

"He kicked my dog," was all she said, and moved by him into the house.

"Jesus Christ, Burke."

"I'll take care of this out here." Burke holstered his gun and exchanged it for his walkie-talkie. "Go on in with her. See that she stays inside until this is done."

Tucker found her in the parlor, sitting in the rocker with the dazed dog across her lap.

"Honey." He crouched down beside her, stroking her face, her hair. "Honey, did he hurt you?"

"He was going to kill me." She kept rocking, afraid if she stopped she'd go mad. "With the knife. He could have shot me, but he had to do it with the knife. Like Edda Lou, he said." The dog began to stir and whine in her lap. Caroline lifted him up against her breast like a baby. "It's all right now. It's all right."

"Caroline, Caroline, look at me, honey." He waited until she turned her head. Her pupils were so dilated, the irises were hardly more than a green aura around them. "I'm going to take you upstairs. Come on now, I'll carry you up and call the doctor."

"No." She let out a long breath as Useless licked her chin. "I'm not going to be hysterical. I'm not going to fall apart. I fell apart in Toronto. All kinds of pieces. Not again." She swallowed, pressing her cheek against the dog's fur. "I was making corn bread. I'd never made corn bread before. Happy gave me her recipe, and I was going to take it over to Susie's. It feels so good being a part of this place." Useless licked away a tear that trickled down her cheek. "You see, I thought I was coming here just to be alone, but I didn't know how much I needed to be a part of something."

"It's going to be all right," he said helplessly. "I promise it's going to be all right."

"I was making corn bread in my grandmother's oven. And I shot Austin Hatinger with my grandfather's gun. Do you think that's strange?"

"Caroline." He cupped her face. She could see the streaks of violence and fury in his eyes that he so carefully filtered out of his voice. "I'm just going to hold you for a while, is that all right?"

"All right."

She let her head rest on his shoulder when he picked her up. Saying nothing, he carried both her and the pup to the couch and cradled them there. They both ignored the phone when it rang.

"I'm going to stay here tonight," he told her. "Down here on the couch."

"I'm not falling apart, Tucker."

"I know, darlin'."

She let out a sigh. "The oven timer's still buzzing." She bit her lip to try to steady her voice. "I guess I burned the corn bread."

She turned her face into his shoulder and wept.