“This ain’t no joke,” Esau Davis said. “We go home, you go home. But a few more years on our sentence don’t mean jack shit to us. We’ll kill you if we need to.”
The prison guard, face flat to the concrete of the ag shed, made a short grunt in agreement as Esau removed a knee from the man’s spine and a good two inches of baling wire from his ear. Just to make sure the guard was listening, Esau slammed the man’s forehead into a trailer hitch before looking to a skinny black man with a misshapen head and crooked teeth. The black man, Bones Magee, set about binding the guard’s hands and feet. This was the third guard he and Esau had snatched up in the last ten minutes. Bones wore black-and-white pants, while Esau wore green-and-white stripes, Esau being the one who’d earned minimal confinement on Parchman Farm.
“What do you think?” Bones asked.
“We got twelve minutes till second watch,” Esau said. “We better get gone or we gonna be tasting buckshot.”
Esau gripped the bound guard by the collar of his jacket, which read MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, and dragged his ass into a storage room where they kept the seed, fertilizer, and sprays. The large bay doors on the equipment barn were open, a big sprawling picture of the Mississippi Delta stretching out table-flat over the Mississippi River and a thousand miles beyond. The sun burned up half gone and diminished, hazed and fuzzy with the storm clouds blowing in from Texas. Another convict—officially, “offenders” these days—ambled up and watched the black clouds smudging up the last of the sun, thunder signaling a shitstorm on the way. The convict, short, white, and bald, with a homemade swastika scrawled on his naked chest, scratched his belly and said, “Let’s go.”
“Not yet,” Esau said.
“You want me to set us out a picnic with Vienna sausages and Little Debbie cakes to watch the storm?” Dickie Green said. “We could sing some songs.”
“I just got your stupid ass out a lifetime of shoveling shit and dead birds from the chicken house,” Esau said. “Only reason you’re part of this is ’cause of me.”
“I’m here ’cause you need me,” Dickie said. “I’m a part of this thing. I am the driver of the rig. I don’t drive the rig and you don’t get to the stables. You don’t get to the stables and you ain’t got the horses. You don’t get the horses and you’re floating down Shit Creek.”
Dickie counted each of his efforts on his stubby, dirty fingers.
“I’m pretty sure of the progression of our situation,” Esau said. “Since it’s my fucking plan.”
Esau stood a little over six feet, broad and muscular, with copper-colored hair and a brushy, copper-colored beard. The same wiry orange hair sprouted across his thick arms and along the nape of his neck and down his back. He had a pale white complexion burnt up red and pink from working a tractor for the last eight years. He didn’t care for Dickie Green one goddamn bit, but the son of a bitch was right. Dickie had to be the one to return the horses to the stables. They’d done it and done it well a thousand times before. All they needed was a good storm to make the tracking all the more difficult in the night and they were good to go. Out of the stables. Out of Unit 29. Out of Parchman Farm.
“And the sheet shows we’re checked out?” Esau said.
“I tole you my woman took care of us,” Bones said. “We got some extra duty tonight on account of the storm. More tractors and shit to bring in from outside. All set up. You know, I do believe that woman loves me.”
“Is she blind or just stupid?”
“I tell her I’m running off to Mexico and send her some money to meet me,” Bones said. “Just like in that movie with Morgan Freeman. She think we gonna get married and that all her five fucking kids comin’ down, too, and we gonna drink margaritas and eat fish tacos on the beach.”
“I don’t want to kill no one,” Esau said. “But I don’t promise nothing. Once we leave this shed, ain’t no turning back. We do what needs to be done.”
“I just helped you gag and tie up four guards,” Bones said. “Right about now, I’m stripping the motherfucker and about to put on his clothes. I would say I’m already in this, white man.”
Esau rubbed his coppery beard and nodded. Dickie Green checked the false bottom of the horse trailer, the two horses nickering and lightly kicking up their feet as the lightning snapped out across the mud and flat-ass land. Esau knew it was a plan but not much of one, twenty-six miles to freedom, with not a tree or any cover between. The plan had been in place for six years now, Esau working his way through every smiling detail, from landscaping the superintendent’s house to welding Dumpsters and barbecue pits to finally getting to drive that big Steiger 9170, planting cotton, beans, and corn.
Esau pulled himself out of the striped convict pants and white convict shirt that no matter the washing still smelled like dead fish and ammonia. He kicked off his work boots and got down to his skivvies before zipping himself into a blue coverall. Bones fitted himself nicely into a guard’s uniform, with the ID still clinging to the official jacket. Dickie waited by the trailer, opening up the gate, pulling away the false bottom and having them lie down flat. Esau thought they were taking a hell of a risk with Dickie Green’s dumb ass at the wheel, but he also knew everyone wanted this to work. Bones lay next to him, as snug and tight as cheap corpses buried two for one, as Dickie slid a thick metal sheet over them and left them in darkness. There was the sound of hay spread on top of the sheet and then the affixture of a ramp. Two of the guards’ quarter horses hefted up and heavily clop-clopped on into the trailer, standing with all their weight on the thick sheet and over Bones and Esau. “Damn, damn, damn,” Bones said. “Just don’t let one fall through onto my balls.”
Esau laughed a little as the big diesel started and pulled on out of the equipment shed and into the wind and the coming rain, rambling and breaking and bumping up over the long road back from the ag buildings and far away from the housing units. Dickie stopped the truck twice, Esau and Bones listening to muffled talk with the guards, and then Dickie moved on. He was taking them east toward the stables and the dog kennels, where Dickie would snatch the woman guard and get the horses out. Dickie wouldn’t ride with them on account of him having a bad case of hemorrhoids and not caring all that much for horses. He told Esau he wanted to drive the trailer out of the front gates bigger than shit, because he said he’d set things in motion with another female guard who must be so fat and ugly and generally stupid that she would fall for a guy like Dickie Green. Fine by Bones and Esau, because the guards would be on Dickie in two seconds and not watching them hauling ass across open land.
“You good?” Esau asked.
“Don’t care for tight places.”
“Just breathe, man,” he said. “Don’t think of it.”
“Can’t see, can’t move,” Bones said. “Don’t like this. Shit, get me out. I can’t breathe.”
“Close your eyes,” Esau said. “Dark is dark. You want to spend the rest of your life in Unit 29, jacking off to General Hospital and Victoria’s Secret?”
“Just paid thirty dollars for a Playboy.”
“Ain’t no way to live.”
“With another man spending our money.”
“How do you know he hadn’t already?”
“We don’t,” Esau said. “But if he has, be nice to confront him on it.”
“Our money,” Bones said. “Our money. Our job.”
“Breathe, brother, breathe,” Esau said.
“Don’t trust that motherfucker,” Bones said.
“Says he found God.”
“Found him a way out, leaving us behind.”
The diesel slowed and rambled to a stop. There was the chugging motor and the rancid, uneasy breath of Bones Magee. Some talk and then a long, long wait before the gate creaked open and those big-ass animals got helped out as the metal buckled and popped overhead. Esau heard the nearby wild, wailing cry of the bloodhounds that had been raised at Parchman for the last hundred years.
Dickie Green pulled the metal sheet back and grinned with his grimy brown teeth and shithole breath. “Hello, gentlemen.”
“What’d you do with her?” Esau said.
“Hit her in the head with an ax handle,” Dickie said. “Ain’t no nice way to do it.”
Esau pushed his way from the hole and helped Bones out. They walked into the stables built of thick slats of wood and corrugated tin. The tack room smelled of rich leather and tannins and big open buckets of molasses. He handed Bones a blanket, saddle, and bridle. “Yippee-ki-yay,” Bones said. “Never rode no horse before. Black people don’t care to play cowboy.”
Esau reached for the tack he needed and hustled back to the center of the stables, where Dickie held both horses. He slipped the bridle over one’s head but had to coax and cool the second one, the horse smelling and sensing the convict hands on him. The one with the more gentle nature, a painted gelding, was given over to Bones. Esau took the reins of the nervous horse, canting back one to three steps, and lifted his big frame onto his back. Dickie tilted his head and looked up at them in the soft-bulbed light. “You boys are on your own.”
He offered his stubby hand out to Esau. But Esau just kept his hands on the leather reins, making for the mouth of the barn, rain pinging the tin roof real good, hoping the second horse would just follow on along and not dump Bones Magee into a ditch. They weren’t even out of the barn when Dickie started the truck and pulled out and away from the stables and onto Guard Road, toward the main gate of Parchman. Esau kicked the horse’s ribs to head north, away from the howling hounds that’d be on them soon, and keeping close to the edge of the cemetery, where they buried men whose families had written them off long ago, their flat headstones just slick places in the dirt. Ain’t no way Esau would be buried there. Ain’t no way he’d let another man take his rightful reward away from him. He’d written nearly five dozen letters and tried calling every chance he got. No response. And his lawyer, that rotten piece of shit, hadn’t gotten a dime of all that money been promised to work some kind of miracle on Esau’s release. Escape was the only way.
Lightning flashed, spiderwebbing and cracking out far and wide across Parchman. Twenty-six miles of road and sixty miles of ditches. The hounds howled and yipped, sensing what was going on before the guards even leashed them up. Esau turned back to Bones, who was dog-cussing his horse, his ass riding everywhere but the saddle. But hell if he weren’t staying on. The wind, the rain beat down hard on their faces; hard-packed dirt became mud and mud became a river. There wasn’t much light, only the twinkling jeweled lights of Rome, Mississippi, and Tutwiler miles and miles beyond. But a few miles into the ride, the storm and darkness became all, and all Esau could do was try his best to find due north. North was gone and away. Away from Parchman and onto Jericho, where they’d left the loot at the bottom of a bass pond with those two dead men. The lightning struck once so close he could feel the strike pitch from the ground and into the horse’s back. You could smell that coppery-coffee topsoil like the earth was just created new.
Esau whipped the flank of his horse now, blinded by the wind and the rain but tasting his freedom all the same.
Ophelia Bundren slid into the booth across from Sheriff Quinn Colson and passed along another file thick with reports on her sister’s killing from a decade ago. “This town might believe Jamey Dixon’s bullshit, but I know who he is and what he’s capable of. Did you know he was on the Square yesterday, passing out
flyers about some revival at a barn?” Quinn nodded. “He wouldn’t even look at me as I passed. He knew I was there
but kept on smiling and shaking hands. Dixon has no shame or sense of honor. A revival in a barn? I guess that sounds about right for him.”
“So what’s in the file?” Quinn said. It was early, daylight just coming on in Jericho, Mississippi. He’d been on patrol from 1800 to 0600 and was looking forward to a hot bath, a shot of whiskey, and some sleep. Out the plate-glass window of the diner, he spotted his cattle dog Hondo sniffing the air from the tailgate of his truck. Hondo looked beat, too.
“A psychological profile of his time in prison,” Ophelia said. “He’s a sociopath.”
“Is that what the report says?” Quinn drank some coffee from a heavy mug that read FILLIN’ STATION.
“He convinced his shrink he’s a new man,” Ophelia said. “He said he doesn’t recall two years of his life before he killed my sister. You believe that?”
“No, ma’am,” Quinn said. “Not at all.”
“How do you think he got on the pardon list?”
“Ophelia,” Quinn said. “We’ve been through this maybe a hundred times. And I agree with you that Dixon hasn’t changed. But it doesn’t sound like what’s in that file is going to move things along.”
Ophelia looked down at her hands, nails cut boy-short but still painted a bright red. She was dark-complected, with high cheekbones, Indian doll eyes, and a tight red mouth. Quinn had known her his whole life, and even before her sister’s murder had never known her to smile. Still, she was pretty and looked good that morning in a short navy dress with cowboy boots and a gray cardigan. Unless you were from Jericho, she’d be the last one you’d figure for a funeral home director. And now that Luke Stevens had taken a job in Memphis, she was also the coroner of Tibbehah County.
“Why?” she asked.
“He was on the governor’s pardon list.”
“But who put him there?”
“And the other two hundred and fifty shitbirds?” Quinn said. “Most of them were friends of political cronies. Others worked in the governor’s mansion. We don’t have any choice but to live with it.”
“Jamey Dixon didn’t have powerful friends,” she said. “His mother cleaned rooms at the Traveler’s Rest.”
Quinn nodded. “He knew somebody.”
Ophelia nodded. She took a deep breath and steadied herself. Quinn drank some black coffee and let the silence settle over them. He touched the file and slid it closer to him.
“You would have to be a damn moron to believe him.”
“Never a shortage,” Quinn said.
“Can I look at the police file again?”
“I’d rather you not.”
“I am entitled,” Ophelia said. “It is public record.”
“You are entitled, but you’re making yourself sick,” Quinn said. “I don’t like to look at those pictures. I don’t want you to, either.”
“They had to scrape her off the highway with a goddamn shovel,” she said. “My parents still found little parts of her that the county men had left.”
“Son of a bitch.”
“Well,” she said, straightening a bright red scarf around her neck. “I appreciate you meeting me so early. What time do you get up?”
“Actually, I’m headed to bed.”
“I’m sorry, Quinn.”
“Don’t be,” Quinn said. “Just my shift.” He drummed his fingers on the file and smiled over at Ophelia. She was easy to smile at, although she’d worked her mouth into a tight questioning knot. About the same age as his little sister, twenty-seven or twenty-eight, but somehow seemed years older. “Can I buy you breakfast?”
“No, thank you,” she said. “I have clients.”
“Dead or alive?”
“Eleanor Taylor,” Ophelia said. “I have to color her hair.”
“She would have liked that,” he said.
Ophelia nodded. She studied Quinn as he drank his coffee. Quinn leaned back into his seat and waited for what he knew she really wanted to talk about. The Bundrens had always been closemouthed people, always some kind of contagious strangeness you wanted to avoid unless you needed someone buried. Kids used to call Ophelia Wednesday Addams behind her back. She’d often get a new boyfriend and then lose him just as fast once she got to talking about embalming.
“Aren’t you concerned?” Ophelia asked.
Quinn drank some coffee. Outside, Hondo was barking at a red truck racing by with rumbling dual mufflers. His coat was a mottled gray and black.
“How long has Caddy been with him?”
Quinn took a deep breath. “Few months.”
“And you’re not worried about your sister being with a man who’s done such horrible things?”
“She says his sins have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb,” Quinn said. “She believes Dixon is a new man.”
“What’s the big brother say?”
“I say it’s hell being sheriff in the same town as your family.”
“What about your momma?”
“Verdict is out with Jean.”
“But you don’t like it?”
“Then we’re together on this.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Quinn said, eyes shifting off hers. “Always have been.”
Ophelia straightened up and gave just the flickering of a smile. “Quit acting like we’re old, Quinn,” she said. “The U.S. Army has aged you a hundred years.”
Quinn started to say something but stayed quiet while he stood and Ophelia slid from the booth. He shook her lean hand and the smile was gone. As she passed, she whispered into his ear, “If Caddy was my sister, I’d lock her up far away and not let her get within a mile of that monster. The devil wears many disguises.”
“And plays a guitar and sings old hymns.”
“He can’t contain who he is forever,” Ophelia said.
Quinn thought on that as the bell over the Fillin’ Station door jingled and she was gone.
Caddy Colson was pretty sure that Jamey Dixon loved her. He had not said it in so many words, but it was more in the way he introduced her to people in the church, held the door for her when they had dinner in Tupelo, or the surprise and joy on his face when she took off her bra and panties and crawled in bed with him. Jamey said he knew what they were doing was wrong but he’d soon be making it right. And Caddy believed him. If she didn’t believe Jamey Dixon, then the whole idea of faith was horseshit.
The winter was behind them, and green leaves had started to appear on skeletal trees, patches of grass showed in the mud of logged-out land, and wisteria, azaleas, and dogwoods had returned even though most of the farmhouses were long gone, the parcels all divided up against feuding families. The air felt lighter and warmer and breathed soft and easy through the wood slats. The hard rains from last night made everything smell rich and fertile, and of flowers and spring planting.
Jamey’s church had moved into the old barn only a few weeks ago, but they’d already painted the outside a bright proper barn red, laid out a number of flower beds in creosote-soaked railroad ties, and had a local welder named Fred Black craft them a handmade sign that read THE RIVER, set off the county road for the short drive down the gravel road. She stood back, the wide doors of the church full open on what felt like the first day of spring, and admired Jamey, who was hanging a string of white lights across the big, empty space of the church. He had crisscrossed several different strands, plugging the lights into an orange power cord while he worked, the church coming into a soft white glow, making everything pleasant down and around the grouping of wooden folding chairs and hay bales, and on up to a pulpit fashioned of barn wood, copper nails, and barbed wire. It had been Caddy’s idea to use the barbed wire to give a solid reminder of a crown of thorns. It had also been her idea to keep the barn looking like a barn and to embrace the message rather than tear it down and build some kind of facility made of prefab metal like an airplane hangar.
“Give me a hand, baby?” Jamey said from the ladder. He wore Birkenstock sandals, a pair of tattered Wranglers, and a faded black Johnny Cash T-shirt. She stood below him and helped thread the string of lights up into his hands. He smiled down at her, all rugged and handsome, with long, blondish hair and a solid manly jaw and blue eyes. A tattoo of Christ on the cross ran the length of his muscular left forearm, crudely inked during his time inside, a reminder of a bad stretch of road.
He moved the ladder one more time, set the end of the lights on a crossbeam, climbed down from the ladder. Jamey stood back and admired his handiwork.
“What do you think?”
“I love it.”
“Yeah?” Jamey said. “Well, that’s the idea. Just like you said. We don’t need a pretense to get people to worship. This isn’t social. At The River, we won’t ask what you do for a living. We don’t ask where you’ve been.”
He rested his arm around her shoulders, and Caddy smiled so big, she felt like she might lose her breath. Her son Jason, now almost five, wandered into the barn with his head tilted upward, amazed by the bright light in the old place. The PA system lightly played George Jones singing “Peace in the Valley,” a song that had been a favorite of Jamey’s grandmother’s. Jason walked over to them and Caddy snatched him up, twirling him around the empty space, feeling so happy she could explode.
“You get that compost dumped?” Jamey asked.
“Yes, sir,” Jason said with a thick country accent. The accent sometimes threw them because of his curly hair and light brown complexion with African features. Jason was Caddy’s reminder and the only blessing to come from some dark days. And not once had Jamey spoken to her about that time. It’s all ahead; the past is nothing but junk in our rearview mirror.
“Can you make dinner at Momma’s?” Caddy asked.
“I’ll try,” Jamey said. “But Randy is coming by with his Ditch Witch. We’re gonna try to put in that water line. Can’t have a church called The River without water.”
Caddy nodded and smiled, trying not to show the disappointment on her face. Jamey pulled her in close and kissed her on top of her head. “Just let me get this church going and I’ll make your momma’s Wednesday nights.”
“I just figured you didn’t want to come.”
“On account of Quinn.”
“Your big brother doesn’t scare me,” he said, grinning. “After ten years, I’ve grown accustomed to law enforcement watching me eat. Kind of makes me feel comfortable, in a way.”
“He shouldn’t have spoken like that to you,” Caddy said. “I’m sorry. Sometimes I think Quinn got his brain scrambled in Afghanistan.”
Jason had lifted himself up into the low loft, where bales of hay had been artfully placed. He jumped from small bale to bale, playing and laughing. George Jones was now singing about what a friend we have in Jesus.
“He doesn’t know you,” she said. “He will after time. Quinn has always been hard on my boyfriends. He thinks he’s doing the right thing.”
Jamey looked down at his empty arm and the long tattoo of Jesus on the cross. He leaned into Caddy some more and said, “Has your brother been saved?”
“He goes to church.”
“But has he really thought of the reason?”
“Whatever you do, please don’t ask him that question.”
“Why’s that?” Jamey said. “That is the question.”
“Because Quinn is bound to answer you in some profane way,” she said. “He may have left the Army, but he’ll always think like a sergeant.”
“There will be a time,” Jamey said. “I know him seeing what he’s seen in the last ten years must have been a profound thing.”
“Same as you,” Caddy said. “Only he loved what he did and wasn’t forced to do it. Of course, he won’t talk about it.”
“With no one?”
“Nobody but Boom.”
“ ’Cause Boom lived the same thing but came out worse,” Caddy said. “Quinn and him have always been like brothers, and now even more so.”
“Boom doesn’t care for me much, either,” Jamey said. “Looks at me like I’m something scraped from the bottom of his shoe.”
“You said yourself that people would doubt your mission,” Caddy said. “Isn’t that why you came home to Jericho? To face your persecutors? To build something that will outlast all of us and our problems?”
Jamey smiled down at her and kissed her nose. She felt his strong arm around her neck, hardworking sweat and heat against her. Jason followed them outside to the gravel lot where she’d parked their car, finding a mud puddle to toss sticks and rocks into to make the muddy water ripple. He looked up at his mother with a big grin at what he’d done.