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Chapter Twenty-One

Smudge loaded the portable dog pen on the back of his coon-hunting fully loaded VI0 Dodge Ram.

'Get in, Tree Buster,' Smudge commanded.

The open-spotted male coon hound jumped eagerly into the truck and got inside his pen. Tree Buster was born to tree coons and that's all he lived to do, that and eat. Tree Buster was a Grand Show Champ. He had a horn bawl with a lot of volume, which was the best voice a coon dog could have, unless one was hunting in the mountains, and then a higher pitch would carry better.

Smudge was proud of Tree Buster and fed him Sexton dry food ordered out of Kentucky. Tree Buster had tight cat feet, strong legs and good muscles, his ears reached the end of his nose, his bite was good and he could carry his tail up like a saber. This was not quite the quality of hound Smudge had encouraged Bubba to order from an ad in American Cooner.

Bubba was certain he'd gotten a great deal. The dog was already broken in and was sired by Thunder Clap, who had placed high in a number of world hunts. Bubba had bought the dog for three thousand dollars sight unseen, not knowing she'd been raised tracking coyotes, deer, bear, bobcats. She was especially good at sniffing out armadillo, or possum on the half shell as the good ole boys called them, thus explaining the dog's name.

Bubba parked his Cherokee in Smudge's driveway. Bubba slid his portable dog pen out the back and loaded it into Smudge's truck. Half Shell stopped bawling. Her tail was wagging furiously.

'Kennel up,' Bubba told his dog.

Bubba tossed in his knee-high waders, headlamp, flashlight, gloves and oilcloth Barbour coat, a portable phone, a compass, a Bucktool and a lock-blade Spyderco knife. He set his knapsack on the floor in front of his seat. It was packed with many things, including Cheez Whiz sandwiches, Kool-Aid, his Colt Anaconda and tricks.

'Looks like you packed for a snowstorm,' Smudge commented as he backed out of the driveway.

'Never know what the weather might do this time of year,' Bubba replied.

'It's pretty warm, Bubba. I don't know about the Dismal Swamp. Snakes might be squirming.'

Bubba acted as if he didn't care while the hair stood up all over his body.

'We can talk about it at Loraine's,' Bubba said.

They drove through peanut country, mulch plants and bleak stretches of newly plowed farmland. Nothing much had changed in Wakefield over the years, except for the new National Weather Service WSR-88-D Doppler radar installation. It looked like a huge high-tech water tower and had stirred up superstitions among neighbors who didn't particularly want the thing even close to their yards.

Bubba, for one, always got an eerie feeling when the radar dome appeared over the tops of trees. Sure, he had no doubt that it was used to track towering storm clouds, wind direction and provide county-level coverage of tornado threats. But he also believed there was more to it than that. Aliens were involved. Perhaps they used the radar installations to communicate to the mother ship, in whatever wrinkle of time or plane of reality that might be. After all, the aliens had been sent here by someone. They needed a way to call home.

There had been a time when Bubba might have confided such a theory with Smudge, but no more. He glanced at his good buddy and felt resentment. When they passed the Shrine of the Infant Jesus in Prague church, Bubba did not feel like turning the other cheek. When they cruised by Purviance Funeral Home, Bubba experienced dark feelings about Smudge's longevity. When they entered Southampton County, where buzzards on the road were looking for snacks, Bubba thought about how Smudge had picked Bubba's bones clean ever since they'd been friends in church.

Just beyond wetlands, Loraine's Restaurant offered Fast, Friendly Service, a neon sign out front advertising FR ED SHR P OYST amp; CRA LE S $13.25 with a blinking arrow pointing to the small cream building with red trim. The parking lot was an old truck stop with piles of gravel, and islands where there used to be gas and diesel pumps. A Norfolk-Southern train rumbled behind the building as Bubba and Smudge parked and walked past front windows hung with Smithfield hams.

Loraine's was a favorite hangout for coon hunters, although not as busy in chasing season as it was in killing season, which was fine with Myrtle, the cashier. She supposed she could understand killing coons years back when pelts were going for twenty dollars apiece. But no one bothered once the price dropped to eight dollars. Whatever the boys shot usually stayed in the woods.

Myrtle was always happy to see Smudge and Bubba. They hunted for the joy of putting their dogs through their paces, it seemed. They only killed coons when it was important to rev up the dogs again, make them believe if they treed a coon, maybe they'd get to kill it. Myrtle couldn't count all the times coon hunters came into the restaurant dressed in Delta Wings camouflage covered with blood. The guys smoked and chewed. They ordered lots of hot coffee and All-U-Can-Eat fried oysters and shrimp, Captain's Platters and meat loaf.

Tables were plastic-covered and designated with bingo numbers. Bubba and Smudge chose B4, with its cheery message, 'Come Back Real Soon.' Bubba started digging in the little wicker basket of A-l, Worcestershire, sugar, Tabasco, and packets of jellies to see if there were any captain's wafers hiding in there. A ceiling fan turned slowly. Smudge and Bubba looked at the specials on the board, next to a sign that read 'We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.'

'Let's put it all out on the table, Bubba,' Smudge said, taking off his Ducks Unlimited cap. 'How much?'

'How much you want?' Bubba tried to sound macho and confident, but inside he was Jell-O.

'Five hundred,' Smudge said, studying Bubba carefully to see his reaction.

'I'll raise it to a thousand,' Bubba said as his gut turned to ice.

'You on the map, good buddy? Or just mud flapping.'

'I got it in my pocket,' Bubba said.

Smudge shook his head. 'That old hound of yours has treed a chicken on top of a chicken pen and a goat on top of a stump. Closest it got to a coon was treeing one on top of a telephone pole. She won't go across water, just barks at it when she's not hanging around your feet. Half Shell ain't worth the lead to shoot her, Bubba.'

'We'll see,' Bubba said as Myrtle came up to the table, notepad in hand.

'You boys decided yet?'

'Iced tea, fried shrimp and oysters,' Bubba said.

'One-time plate or all-u-can-eat?'

'Lay it on me,' Bubba said.

Myrtle laughed, chewing gum. 'And Smudge?'

'The same.'

'You boys sure are easy,' she said, brushing crumbs off their table and walking back to the kitchen.

'Where we headed?' Bubba asked.

'Gonna start out at the intersection of 620 and 460 right over there.' Smudge pointed. 'And head left way up in the middle of nowhere. Just muddy roads, forest and creeks. I did some checking into the Dismal Swamp and you definitely don't want that right now. Apparently when it's warm during the day, snakes are balled up like earthworms, there's so many of 'em. When it cools off at night, you run over 'em like sticks on the road.'

Bubba was having a hard time breathing.

'You all right, good buddy?' Smudge said.

'Allergies. I forgot to bring my Sudafed.'

'Chances are where we're going the snakes aren't going to be near that bad,' Smudge went on. 'And if we see a snake, just let it be. They're more scared of us than we are of them.'

'Who says?' Bubba blurted out. 'Did a snake actually tell someone that? It's like saying dogs have no sense of time. Did someone ask Half Shell if it's true? I've heard tales of a snake going up somebody's pants leg. So how scared is that?'

'Good point,' Smudge replied thoughtfully. 'I've heard the same thing. I must admit I've also heard of snakes chasing people and cobras spitting you in the eye, although I can't say whether it's true.'

Divinity tried to calm Smoke and get him out of his dangerous mood. But when he got like this, there was no point ranting and raving about something unless she wanted to get the treatment.

'Baby, it's just I don't want nothing bad to happen to you,' she tried one more time as he sped along Midlothian Turnpike, away from the slum he called a clubhouse where he now had enough of an arsenal to take out an entire police precinct.

'I find him, he's dead,' Smoke said.

Wu-Tang was playing 'Severe Punishment.' Smoke turned it up louder.

'What'd I tell him to do?' Smoke glared at Divinity.

'You told him to paint up the statue,' she said quietly, watching his hands to make sure he didn't head them her way.

'I told him to paint up, as in fuck up, as in ruin.' Smoke gripped the wheel hard. 'I knew I shoulda stayed there and watched. Goddamn it. Shit! Then he paints that little fucking blue fish and the whole fucking world thinks that fish virus has got something to do with it! Where's our credit, huh? Where does it say the Pikes?'

'Don't look like we got credit, baby.' She was freezing up inside, waiting for that beast in him to jump out.

'Well, I'm gonna fucking fix that, and you know how?'

'No, baby,' Divinity said, rubbing his neck.

'Don't touch me!' Smoke shoved her away. 'My mind's working.'

The newsroom at this hour was left to a certain breed, the cave fish of journalism, those who slept through the sun and monitored life at its darkest hours. Artis Roop did not keep to a schedule.

He was energized and almost crazed as he hammered on about 'Smokes,' Fishsteria and the same blue fish painted ever so subtly on the base of Basketball Jeff. There had been no real breaks. Roop was rearranging old information, and he knew it. There was nothing else going on except the same old drug shootouts and fights in city council.

'Shit.'

He leaned back in his chair and stretched, cracking his neck to the right and left.

'Got anything for last edition?' night editor Outlaw called out.

'Working on it,' Roop called back.

'How big?'

'How much space I got?' Roop asked.

'Depends on what comes in over the wire,' Outlaw said.

Roop was about to confess that he had nothing worth shit when his phone rang.

'Roop,' he answered.

'How do I know for sure?'

'Huh?' Roop asked.

'How do I know I'm talking to Roop?' the tough male voice came back.

'What is this, some kind of crank call?' Roop was about to hang up.

'I'm the blue fish guy.'

Roop was silent. He flipped open his notepad.

'You ever heard of the Pikes, man?'

'No,' Roop confessed.

'Who the fuck you think painted that fucking statue? What the hell do you think the fucking fish is?'

'A pike?' Roop was fascinated. 'The fish is a pike?'

'You fucking got it.'

'There've been suggestions the fish is actually the state fish, a trout,' Roop let him know.

'It ain't no trout and you better pay attention "cause there's a lot going down in this city that the Pikes are taking charge of.'

'So is it fair to say that the Pikes are a gang?' Roop asked.

'No, fuckhead, we're a Girl Scout troop.'

'Then it's all right if I refer to the Pikes as a gang in my article. Who are you?' Roop asked cautiously.

'Your worst nightmare.'

'I mean, really.'

'The leader. I'm whatever I decide to be and I do whatever I want. Your fucking city ain't seen nothing yet. And you can print that in red. Remember the Pikes. You're going to hear from us again.'

'But why a basketball player, and does the fish tag have anything to do with the computer crash?'

Roop was answered by a dial tone. He called the police.

At this point, tables B3, B6, B2 and Bl had gotten caught up in Bubba and Smudge's conversation.

'Let me tell you what happened to me one time,' said an old man in overalls. 'Found one in my toilet. Lifted the lid and there it was, all curled up, its tongue sliding in and out.'

'Oh my!' exclaimed a woman at the other table. 'How could that have happened?'

'Can only figure it was a hot summer and he wanted to cool off.'

'Snakes are cold-blooded. They don't have to cool off.'

'Might've come up from the sewer.'

'I was out in my johnboat one early morning before it was light, looking for duck when a damn water moccasin dropped into my boat, right on top of my foot, I kid you not. He must've been that big around.' He made a huge circle with his fingers.

'Every time you tell that story, Ansel, the darn thing gets bigger.'

'What'dya do?' Smudge asked as Bubba sat in silence, his face ashen.

'Kicked the damn thing as hard as I could. It sailed right over my head, all wriggly, and I could feel it brush my hair as it went past before splashing in the water.'

'We had one right here in the cooler.' Myrtle came over to join in. She pulled out a chair as if dinner no longer mattered.

'It was the worse scare of my life, fellas. Apparently he was out back sunning hisself on the loading dock when Beane went into the walk-in cooler to get a barrel of pickles. Must've walked right by that God-awful rattlesnake and neither noticed the other. All we could figure after the fact is while Beane had the cooler door open, the snake went on in and got locked up. So little ole me goes in there the next morning for bacon and the minute I opened that door and step inside, I hear something rattling.'

She paused, shivering, shutting her eyes. Everyone was silent and horror-struck as they hung on to every word.

'Well,' Myrtle went on, 'I didn't move. I looked around and couldn't see nothing at first and then I heard the rattle again. By then I pretty much knew what it was. I mean a rattlesnake's rattle has a rattle all its own and that's what I was hearing sort of in the direction of the ten-gallon buckets of potato salad and coleslaw.' She paused again.

'Where was it?' The man in overalls could wait no longer.

'I'll bet it was eating a rat back there.'

'We don't got rats in the cooler,' Myrtle was quick to defend.

'Then where the hell was it, Myrtle?' Smudge said.

'That far from me.' She held her index fingers six inches apart.

Everybody gasped.

'It was coiled up right next to the mop, its tail sticking up and rattling to beat the band.'

'What'cha do!' Voices chimed in.

'Why, I got bit,' Myrtle said. 'Right there on my left calf. Happened so fast I hardly felt a thing and then that snake was gone like a streak of grease. I was in the hospital a week, and let me tell you, my leg swole up so big they thought they might have to cut it off.'

No one spoke. Myrtle got up.

'Your food ought to be ready,' she said, heading back to the kitchen. ruby Sink tried for hours to get Lelia Ehrhart on the phone, but when call waiting kicked in, whoever was on the line simply ignored it.

Agitation and loneliness usually sent Miss Sink into the kitchen, where she had no one to cook for these days except that sweet young police officer renting one of her many properties. She had often thought about inviting him in for dinner, but she didn't have time to cook a big meal.

Making shortbread cookies was one thing. But pot roast and fried chicken were another. Her various boards and associations consumed her, really. It was a wonder she could ever get around to fixing that boy anything. She dialed his pager and left her number, assuming he was probably busy at a crime scene.

The page landed in Brazil's beeper as he was knocking on Weed's front door. It hadn't taken much investigation to check the city directory and see that the Gardeners, not the Joneses, lived in the small house behind Henrico Doctors' Hospital where Brazil had dropped off Weed last night.

When Roop tipped off the police that a gang called the Pikes had claimed responsibility for the cemetery vandalism, Brazil knew Weed quite possibly was into something deep and dangerous.

Brazil knocked again and no one answered. It was dark out with no moon. There were no sounds coming from inside the house and no car in the driveway.

'Anybody home?' Brazil loudly tapped the door with his Mag-Lite.

West covered the back door, and after several minutes of silence she came around to the front.

'He knows we're looking for him,' West said, slipping her nine-millimeter Sig back into the shoulder holster.

'Maybe,' Brazil said. 'But we can't assume he's figured out we know who his brother was.'

They were walking back to the unmarked car. Brazil shone the flashlight on his pager and read the number. He got out his phone and dialed. Miss Sink answered immediately.

'Andy?'

'Hi,' Brazil said sweetly as he thought of the florist's card on the table in West's hallway.

'We're closing the cemetery to the public,' she told him right off.

West took her time unlocking her door. Brazil was certain she wanted to know who he was talking to.

'I think that's a great idea,' Brazil said.

'The statue's going to have to go into the shop, which is no easy thing when you think how much it weighs. So until we can get it out of the cemetery, the association has decided to keep everybody out except funeral parties, of course.'

'What time?' Brazil said in a hushed voice.

'What?' Miss Sink said. 'I can't hear you.'

'Right now?'

'Oh.' Miss Sink sounded confused. 'You mean is it closed right this minute?'

'Yes.'

'It is. Do you like pot roast?'

'Don't tease me,' Brazil whispered as West jerked open her door.

'I'm not wheezing,' Miss Sink said. 'But this time of year, the pollens are awful, especially if you're in the garden very much. Well, I guess pot roast isn't what young people eat these days. Not fried chicken either.'

'Oh yes I do,' Brazil said as he went around to his door and got in.

'You know what the secret is?' Miss Sink's mood was considerably uplifted.

'Let me guess. Honey.'

West abruptly pulled out onto the street and gunned the engine.

'Exactly right,' Miss Sink exclaimed. 'How did you know that?'

'Had it before. About time I had it again.'

'Now that's talking,' Miss Sink said. 'I'll get back with you and we'll do something about it.'

'I sure hope so,' Brazil said. 'Gotta go.'

West was driving as if she hated the car and was determined to punish it.

'At least I don't make personal calls on the job,' she exclaimed.

Brazil was silent. He stared out his window. He took a deep breath and sighed. He glanced over at her, his feelings a volatile mixture of euphoria and heartache. She was jealous. She must still care. But he couldn't stand to hurt her. He almost told her the truth about Miss Sink. But when he remembered the florist's card, he thought, forget it.

Bubba was not in good spirits as Smudge drove through the tar-black night, rocking over ruts and splashing. Stars were out and stingy with their light. Bubba wished he'd never come. He felt awful. He thought he might throw up.

'We really haven't gone over the rules,' Smudge said cheerfully.

'I thought we said they'd be the same as always,' Bubba replied despondently.

'No, I think we ought to add a default clause,' Smudge proposed. 'Since so much is at stake and this is a one-on-one competition.'

'I don't understand,' Bubba commented as suspicions gathered.

'Let's say Half Shell's being her typical loudmouth cold nose and starts treeing about two or three trees away from the tree where the coon is. And Half Shell's doing it every time. You might just want to bag it instead of staying out in the woods all night. Same thing goes for me.'

'So if I default, you get the thousand dollars. If you default I get it. If both of us default, neither of us get a thing,' Bubba deduced.

'You got it, good buddy. We'll go one hundred and twenty minutes, five minutes' rest between each segment, regular competition rules.'

Bubba had no idea where he was when Smudge finally parked the truck on a muddy road and climbed out, leaving the headlights on so they could see. They sat on the tailgate and put on their boots and coats.

'Left my Bucktool inside,' Bubba mumbled.

He crawled into the front seat, far out of Smudge's view, and dug inside his knapsack for the pearls on black string. He stuffed them into a pocket. He slipped out his Colt Anaconda.44. It was not his gun of choice for the night. But Bubba had nothing left. The rest had been stolen. He slid the monster revolver into a Bianchi on-belt HuSH nylon holster beneath his long, full coat.

'We all set?' Smudge asked.

'Let's get on with it,' Bubba replied bravely.

They let their dogs out of the pens and both began howling and baying, tails wagging as Bubba and Smudge restrained them with heavy nylon leashes.

'Good girl,' Bubba said as he kneaded Half Shell behind her long silky ears.

Bubba loved his dog, no matter her deficits. She looked like a long-legged, sleek Beagle with surprisingly soft fur. She loved to lick Bubba's hand and face. Bubba was reluctant to let her go crashing through those woods. If she got snake-bit or a coon tore her up, Bubba couldn't live with it.

Smudge had out the stopwatch. Bubba was petting Half Shell and encouraging her to find a coon this time.

'Go!' he said before Bubba was ready.

Weed ran through the dark along Cumberland Street until he neared I-195's Cherry Street overpass. Banking either side of it were thick growths of trees and shrubs closed in by a high chain-link fence.

He walked over a grassy bank, furtively looking left and right as he reached the fence, which he could not see through because the foliage was too dense. He almost didn't care what was on the other side. So what if he fell fifteen feet into rushing traffic? What was left in life but for Smoke to find him?

Weed climbed the fence and pushed branches away from his face as he worked his way down the other side. He held his breath as his feet touched ground and blindly pushed his way through tall grass and shrubs, holding his arm in front of his face to protect his eyes. He found himself in a clearing where he could just make out a small camp and a figure sitting in the middle of it, the tip of a cigarette glowing. Weed's heart flipped.

'Who's there?' an unfriendly voice sounded. 'Don't try anything. I can see in the dark and I know you're puny and don't got a gun.'

Weed didn't know what to say. He had no place to run unless he tried to get back over the fence or decided to jump the wall and land on the expressway.

'What's the matter, kitty got your tongue?' the man asked.

'No, sir,' Weed said politely. 'I didn't know nobody was here. I'll be glad to leave.'

'No place to go. That's why you're here, now ain't it?'

'Yes, sir.'

'You can stop all that yes sir shit. My name's Pigeon.'

That ain't your real name.' Weed ventured a little closer.

'I don't remember my real one anymore.'

'How come they call you that?'

'Because I eat 'em. When I can, that is.'

Weed's stomach flopped.

'What's your name, and why don't you come a little closer so I can get a good look at you.'

'Weed.'

'That ain't your real name," Pigeon mimicked him.

'Yes, it is, too.'

Weed was hungry and thirsty, and the constant thunder of traffic frightened him. A chill had settled over the night and he was cold in his baggy jeans and Bulls jersey. Pigeon lit another cigarette and Weed caught a glimpse of Pigeon's face in the spurt of flame.

'You're pretty old,' Weed said.

'Older than you, that's for damn sure.' He inhaled deeply and held it.

Weed stepped closer. Pigeon smelled as if he were rotting alive.

'Once you been in here awhile, your eyes start seeing again. Notice? I think all those lights from the cars below us have something to do with it,' Pigeon said. 'You don't look like you're much older than ten.'

'Fourteen,' Weed replied indignantly.

Pigeon dug in a trash bag and pulled out part of a submarine sandwich. Weed's mouth watered but he felt kind of sick, too. Pigeon dug in the bag again and set down a two-liter bottle of Pepsi that was half empty. He flicked the cigarette butt into the night.

'Want some?' Pigeon asked.

'I ain't eating or drinking nothing that came out of the garbage,' Weed said.

'How you know it came out of the garbage?' "Cause I seen people like you digging things outta the garbage. You go around with shopping carts and don't live anywhere.'

'I live here,' Pigeon said. 'That's somewhere, isn't it? Get your butt closer. I'll show you something.'

Weed tried to block our the smell as he walked all the way to the blanket Pigeon sat on. Pigeon reached into a pocket of his ragged Army jacket and showed Weed a Baggie filled with something.

'Peanut butter crackers,' Pigeon confided in his rough, raspy voice. 'Didn't come outta the trash. The soup kitchen downtown is where.'

'You swear?' Weed said as his stomach begged him to help out a little.

Pigeon nodded.

'I gotta bottle of water that's never been opened. Soup kitchen again. I guess I can share with a little lost boy.'

'I'm not lost,' Weed said.

Bubba was. The minute the dogs had been cut loose, Half Shell had taken off through the woods in one direction while Smudge and Tree Buster had gone in another. The dogs crashed through underbrush for a good ten minutes before Half Shell barked three times. 'STRIKE, HALF SHELL!1 Bubba hollered. The crashing in Smudge's direction stopped. Bubba started running as best he could, breaking branches so he could find his way back, stepping over logs and wading through creeks, his headlamp clearing the way. He stamped and crackled, hoping if there was a snake in the area, it would think twice about getting near all that noise. Bubba's heart was pounding and he was gasping for breath as he followed the sound of his dog.

Half Shell's front paws were up an old pine tree and she was barking and bawling, her tail wagging, when Bubba appeared. Bubba had no doubt that Half Shell had either backtracked and followed the scent of where the coon had been instead of where the coon was going, or Half Shell had found yet one more slick tree that no more had a coon in it than an iceberg had sugarcane. Bubba shone his submersible Super SabreLite up into the branches, sweeping the beam from high to low, disappointed but not surprised.

He dug out two iridescently painted pearls on a string and whirled them over his head. He flung them as high as they would go and was relieved when they snagged halfway up the pine tree. He shone his light on them and they glowed yellow, two perfect coon eyes. Bubba's heart swelled with euphoria as Half Shell continued barking at nothing and Tree Buster crashed in on them, Smudge right behind him.

'TREE, HALF SHELL!' Bubba yelled.

'No way,' Smudge said, trying to catch his breath and sweating.

'Look for yourself.'

Bubba shone the light on the bright yellow eyes high up in the black branches of the tree.

'If there's a coon up there, then how come Tree Buster's just sitting here and isn't trying to tree it, too,' Smudge declared as Tree Buster panted and stared.

'That's your problem, good buddy,' Bubba said. 'And you can't tell me you don't see it.'

'I see it,' Smudge had to admit. 'Damn thing sure is crouched up there at a funny angle. Looks like he's sideways.'

Bubba got out his score card.

'A hundred points for the strike and another hundred and twenty-five for the tree,' he said, jotting the numbers in the Tree column.

Smudge was sullen. They put the dogs back on the leashes and walked through the woods for five minutes. Smudge started the timer and again they let the dogs loose. Tree Buster bolted off as if he knew something. Half Shell disappeared no more than a hundred feet into the woods before she hit a creek and barked three times.

'STRIKE, HALF SHELL!' Bubba let loose his battle cry.

Tree Buster barked three times much farther away.

'STRIKE, TREE BUSTER!' Smudge yelled.

The two men went after their dogs. Bubba almost tripped over a root and stepped into a hole as he tried not to think about snakes. It was on his mind that if Smudge caught on to what Bubba was doing, Smudge might just leave Bubba out here. Hunters would find Bubba's skeleton years later.

Half Shell continued barking at the shallow creek and Bubba picked her up and carried her across it, setting her under another thick, winter-bare oak tree.

'Bark at that,' Bubba told her.

Half Shell wasn't interested.

'Come on, girl,' Bubba begged.

Half Shell sat, tongue hanging out. Bubba sighed. He reached inside a pocket and pulled out another pair of marbles and a Cheez Whiz sandwich on white bread. Half Shell started barking and drooling as Bubba waved the sandwich in front of her nose. The dog went crazy. Bubba reached up and stuffed the sandwich in a knothole. Half Shell started jumping up at it, barking and baying as Bubba flung another set of eyes high up in the branches of another slick tree.

This went on until there were only twenty minutes left of the two-hour competition. Bubba had amassed nine hundred points. Smudge had nothing. He had stopped talking forty-five minutes ago. He no longer petted his dog.

'We may as well call it a day,' Bubba proposed. 'There's no way you can catch up, Smudge.'

'It ain't over 'til it's over,' Smudge let him know.

The last chance was for Bubba to default, to quit before the competition was over. Smudge knew he had no choice as they walked deeper into the woods during their five-minute break between segments.

Smudge quietly reached inside his knapsack and grabbed hold of the rubber snake, closing his hand around the rattle to silence it as he withdrew the rattler and uncoiled the monofilament attached to it. Smudge cast the snake over Bubba's head. It landed about six yards in front of Bubba's feet.

'What the hell was that?' Bubba asked with fear in his voice.

'What was what?' Smudge asked as he started jerking the line and the rattle sounded.

'Oh God!' Bubba exclaimed, standing perfectly still and shining his light on a huge rattlesnake wriggling toward him at great speed.

'AHHHHHHHHH!!' Bubba screamed, crashing this way and that, tearing open his coat as the snake jumped and tumbled and rattled after him.

'Run! Run!' Smudge yelled, darting wherever necessary to keep the snake where he wanted it.

Bubba suddenly wheeled around, his.44 Anaconda revolver with its eight-inch barrel and scope gripped in both shaking hands. He fired again and again and again as pieces of the snake flew straight up into the air and Smudge dove over a dead tree and rolled through bushes and over a bank and into the creek.


Chapter Twenty | Southern Cross | Chapter Twenty-Two