Copyright 2009 by Adrien Stricklin
The township of Pinhook lay just at the mouth of Possum Holler. Two large hills rose up to the north and to the south creating a low place in the land several miles long. The valley saw just a fraction of each day’s light and cast two sequential shadows upon Pinhook starting at midday. In the winter the shadow from the southern mass enveloped every building early in the day, swallowing even the top of the white steeple adorning the First Methodist Church before noon. The cooler air of town kept ice blocks solid and provided relief from the sweltering summer heat of the neighboring fields.
On a warm day in June, Samuel Lutts made the short trip from his 40 acres to the tables of Market Street in late afternoon. His dusty mule guided a large cart of produce with Samuel in the lead. The path was mostly downhill and the mule’s knees strained from braking the weight of the cart. The wheels bounced over roots and broken limestone, jostling small melons and baskets of green tomatoes. In a covered basket, five beagle pups whined, having just been weaned. At the market he filled one half of an 8x4 ft. table reserved for him and shared with a neighbor. He quickly sold the produce, having a reputation with vegetables, and gave one of the smaller pups to a curious girl in a lavender dress. A bell rang off in the distance and the women nervously shooed children from the streets. Samuel took the remaining four pups and led the mule through town, and exited into the holler just before dusk. There were several men well ahead of him and he could hear their shouting and laughter. A distant gunshot sounded and bounced off the hills.
Mary Lutts was scrubbing one of her print dresses against a wash board when she was interrupted by bells. She, unlike the other women within earshot grew anxious instead of nervous. While she knew her neighbors would be rushing in doors and locking their houses, she leisurely strolled inside to her vanity and applied rouge. She wanted to spray perfume but thought better of it. She walked to the window and rested her hands on the sill. She stared intently on the tree line that bordered the back field. A swollen beagle sauntered into the room, whimpered, and then shuffled down the hall, her nails clicking on the hardwood.
Jesse and Jacob Percy took turns firing shots from horseback as they rode deeper into the darkness of the holler. Both men were fools and thirsty, enjoying the evening’s theatrics to a fault. They passed other men of Pinhook carrying lanterns and yelling threats at the Wampus Cat. At every mention of the words, dogs bayed and choked against their leashes. The clever introduction months before of steak with their yells had trained the dogs into frenzy every time someone said Wampus. The cat, supposedly a lone panther, had been borrowed at the beginning of Prohibition from Indian folklore. The few who were handy with a still had lent the story to their clientele to safeguard frequent business.
The Wampus Cat, as relayed to women and children of Pinhook by the newly formed Guard, was a black panther that stood four feet tall at the shoulder and was ten feet from tooth to tail. Its coat, aided by genetic defect, grew long and had forced the beast from the humid swamps of Florida. It had found suitable habitat in the cool valley of Possum Holler. There it had grown fat for months on grouse, turkey, and even boar. It was only a matter of time though according to all who had seen it, before the cat exhausted its limited resources and took to stalking children and the elderly. A regular watch was established and a system of alerts was put in place. A sighting would be reported by horseback, resulting in the rest of the guard being alerted by the ringing of church bells. Being mostly nocturnal, the predatory cat was usually spotted just before dusk.
David Lawrence hovered in briars listening for the last of the bell tolls. Brambles pulled at his clothes and yellow jackets buzzed around his face moving among the blackberries. After the final ring, he counted out loud to thirty and cautiously emerged from the brush. He crouched as he ran swiftly across a narrow field. When he got to the back door of the farm house, it swung open before his boot hit the first step and he was quickly ushered in by Mary Lutts.
About a mile into the woods, most of the Guard were arriving and congregating around a large tangle of copper piping. Spirits were high as the men drank corn whiskey. They told stories and laughed. A make shift horseshoe pit had been dug a few weeks before and a running competition was now being documented with Samuel’s pocket knife on the trunk of a large Beech tree. Samuel wasn’t playing today though. He had sold off the remaining pups and wasn’t in the mood to drink. Something was bothering him about the market. His neighbor, David, shared table space with him and was always present when Samuel was. He hadn’t been there in a week. Also, David had seldom accompanied the rest of the Guard in the last month. Samuel feared his absence may lead to suspicion by the women still in town. Surely he would have to explain repeatedly why his presence wasn’t needed in the woods when the Wampus Cat had been spotted. Samuel knew he might eventually defend his honor against perceived cowardice and reveal the true agenda of the Guard. Amidst the boisterous festivities, Samuel was able to exit the clearing, re-hitch his mule, and head back towards town without interruption or notice.
Mary leaped from bed at the sound of wooden wheels nearing the house. Two frantic shadows moved about along the bedroom wall in lantern light, visible through two windows. Her and David swore and tripped over each other and their scattered clothes in the dim light.
Samuel stopped the cart and tied the mule to a post. He could see no light down the hill from David’s house and his heart sank. He slowly walked to the front door, pistol in hand, and entered his home. He stood in the entryway and called to Mary, not wanting to see his suspicions confirmed. She called back and he could barely hear whispers and then a bedroom window shutting. She came into the room, looking as calm as she could. In that moment, she looked younger than Samuel had seen her in many years. He said hello and started to the kitchen, not knowing what to say or ask. He didn’t realize he was still holding his pistol and Mary was about to say something when an object in the corner caught both of their eyes at the same time. A man’s belt lay carelessly on the floor next to the hall doorway. Samuel didn’t make eye contact with Mary nor did he mention what he had seen. He felt like dying, but he calmly walked to the kitchen. There he took a seat and was met by Mary. She offered to brew some coffee and he accepted. She drew a tin from the cupboard, peered inside and sighed. She excused herself to the cellar to fetch coffee to refill the empty tin and had been gone for what seemed an eternity. Samuel didn’t wait in his seat. He walked first to the tin, which was nearly full of coffee, and then he walked to the hallway, where the belt had disappeared. His heart was now pounding in his chest and he decided to bolt from the house before Mary returned. He walked through the yard, across the drive and toward the trees. There, he fell to his knees below a pine and wept. Inside, Mary reentered the empty kitchen and was relieved to see the pistol sitting on the table.
Samuel slept that night in the woods, and was up again at dawn. He slipped into the house, retrieved his pistol and left. Mary, who had only fallen asleep an hour before, did not hear him leave. Samuel left the mule in the yard and started down the road. He would spend most of the morning walking in the woods, gathering his thoughts, but not before paying a visit to the Percy brothers.
David Lawrence did not sleep at all that night. He had run from the Lutts’s window and to his home in the dark. He did not light a lantern or even his pipe, but just sat motionless in the dark of his living room peering through the window in the direction he had come from. His nerves had almost settled when he went to remove his belt. Its absence around his waste didn’t register at first, but when his finger caught the empty belt loop he stood frozen. He felt nauseous and had to lie down. His head spun. He was still laying there on the hard floor when Jacob Percy came to the door. He only heard footsteps and was so guilt stricken he felt little fear. He lay there and waited for Samuel to come in. Jacob Percy came in instead, but David deduced quickly that the end result would be the same.
That evening the bells tolled a little early. Samuel waited in the holler for the rest of the Guard. He had promised several future pups to the proprietor of the still early in the day, and had drunk the majority of the trade through the afternoon. He was feeling little when the Guard began appearing. Word had spread and most tipped their hats to Samuel or muttered short condolences. Finally the Percy brothers appeared, accompanied by David Lawrence. His head hung slack to his chest as he walked, eyes on his feet. He was marched into the clearing and left alone. He did not make eye contact with anyone but Samuel who finally approached him, pistol drawn. The bullet caught David in the chest and the scene was short. David died in the clearing and was promptly buried beneath the Beech tree.
A year passed in Pinhook, and the ignorant would
celebrate David Lawrence’s memory and bravery.
Prohibition was in time lifted and the Wampus Cat was seen for the
last time shortly thereafter. In all the beast terrorized the
innocent citizens of Pinhook for nearly three years, taking countless
livestock and one human casualty. Out of respect, distant
relatives of David Lawrence were assisted in locating the proper
place to mourn. To this day, down in a clearing, deep in the
holler, lies a grave marked by a rusted belt buckle hammered into the
trunk of a mighty Beech. The initials read “DL”.
Just above the buckle are carved scores, but there were no victors.
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