Short Stories

Walt's First Buck

Vernon was getting agitated. He was on his second cup of coffee, and his second splash from the quart of JW Dant, from the cabinet over the stove. It was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the Shepherd men were at “The Mansion”, a three room farmhouse that served as hunting camp on the family property near Alamo, TN. They were here this week every year, a few weekends, and another couple of days around Christmas. Vernon, his son Roger, various friends, and for the first time this year, Roger’s boy Walt. Roger looked at his father with concern, and maybe a little bit of amusement. Vernon didn’t bother going out to the deer stand anymore, so Roger wasn’t concerned about the bourbon, but it couldn’t be doing the old man’s heart any good. Vernon just came up here to get away from his wife’s lace doilies and church meetings. When he was working, he was gone in rail yards and barrooms, and was never home enough to feel suffocated by his wife Gertrude’s insistence on maintaining the sanctity of her domestic kingdom. In retirement he found it stifling. This was his time to live however he wanted to, and drink when he damn well felt like it.


“He got out! That son of a bitch got out.” Vernon kept repeating. 

“Who Daddy?”, Roger asked, “Who got out?”. 

“Goddamn Paul Rainey, who else? Paul goddamn Rainey”

“Calm down, Daddy, you’re scaring Walt.”


Vernon was retired from the railroad, and in his 37 years there had held a variety of positions, from railroad cop to yard manager. He was a fountain of stories, and all though Roger just tuned him out these days, Walt was absolutely fascinated with his Papaw’s tales. Along with his pension, Vernon  took home a collection of mementos and stories of rail tramps and robbers. Old signs, railroad spikes, cheap framed photographs were scattered about “The Mansion”. These were the overflow relics that Roger’s mother, had threatened to throw away if Vernon couldn’t find a place for them. Walt was particularly fascinated with the bits of hobo art displayed in makeshift shadow boxes. Each trinket was a like a trademark, a piece of the man who made it. Vernon had a story about the man behind every drawing, hobo nickel, or crude figurine. 


Walt couldn’t recall hearing about any Paul Rainey. He started to ask, but a look from Roger made him think better of it. He went back to his breakfast of day old biscuits and burnt bacon. Roger looked at his 76 year old father and wished he hadn’t brought the Friday edition of the Commercial Appeal with him this weekend. The old man was still full of piss and vinegar, and believed himself to be every bit as capable as the young soldier who stormed the beach at Normandy so many years ago. A heart attack ten years past, and the various ailments 76 years of life leaves a man with did nothing to disposess Vernon of this belief. Roger saw it from another perspective. He noticed his father was increasingly confused. At night he carried on heated conversations in his sleep, but had no recollections of them when asked the next day. 


“Finish up Walt, we need to be in the stand before the sun comes up”


Roger got their rifles form the cases under one of the beds. Roger carried a 30-06 Remington bolt action that Vernon had bought him when he turned 17. Walt would carry the lever action 30-30 that Roger had carried up until he got the Remington. Vernon’s bolt action A3-03 stayed under the bed. At this point a deer could walk up the porch and Vernon, having no interest in cleaning a deer, would offer it a snort.


“Me and Walt are headed over to the little creek stand. I saw a rub over there yesterday afternoon and I think we might have some luck. Go easy on the JW, and maybe get some rest today. Okay Daddy?”


The property had been in Vernon’s family since right after the civil war. The farm house was actually one a sharecropper family had lived in. The slightly larger house that Vernon was born in, had burned in the early ‘60s. Roger and Walt put on their orange vests and headed towards the little creek stand, about half a mile away. It was in the gray part of the dawn after that little period that feels like the darkest part of the night, right before the sun starts to come up. Roger was somewhat annoyed at the late start, and a little concerned about his father’s agitation. Although, he came to relax, he found himself anxious. Walt’s short attention span was also testing his patience. While Vernon was a swaggering railroad man who came to drink and tell tales as much as for the hunt (these days more), Roger took after his mother’s people, who tended to be more intellectual and practical. The way Roger saw it, he was there to hunt and spend time with his son, who he was finding it harder and harder to connect with. Walt was a kid who loved his comics and video games, wasn’t particularly interested in school, although he did well enough. Walt was emotional, tending towards the dramatic. Roger wasn’t sure how he would take to the solitude and sometimes boredom of hunting, but it was an opportunity for them to spend time together and he had been looking forward to it. 




They got to the stand just as the sun started to break over the horizon. As it’s name suggested the little creek stand overlooked a small stream just under a ridge. Roger had taken a doe here last year and a 4 point buck some years before. The woods got thick about 30 yards from the stand and the little clearing provided a perfect shooting lane for what he hoped would be Walt’s first deer. The stand was about 15 feet off the ground and was a cozy fit for the two hunters. 


It was hard for Walt to stay awake. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to be here. He had grown up wanting to join the men at the mansion. When he turned 12 that summer, his father had pulled the old 30-30 from the closet at Papaw’s and showed him how to work the lever action. He had shot it once a few summers ago when he was staying with Meemaw and Papaw under Vernon’s loose supervision, but it kicked like a mule and he had stuck with the little bolt action .22 Savage since then. This time it was different. Roger introduced him to the rifle systematically, teaching him how to shoot it from a bench rest, seated with an elbow on his knee, and standing. He learned how to pull his elbow close to his body with his grip on the forearm of the rifle, to exhale and gently squeeze the trigger in one even motion as he let his breath out. Father and son enrolled in the mandatory hunter’s safety course on Tuesday and Thursday nights at the community center, and when fall came around Walt was ready to get a Junior Sportsman’s license. Walt was happy to be out with his father and grandfather, but he hadn’t thought about how boring the reality of waiting silently in a deer stand for something to wander out of the woods would be. In the silence of the early morning, every bird fluttering in the brush, and every squirrel jumping from tree to tree sounded like deer crashing through the woods. 


This morning was even more difficult. He was a bit preoccupied wondering what had Papaw so shook up. He asked his father about it on the walk, but was shushed. This just piqued his curiosity. He had heard Vernon’s stories from the war, and 37 years of the railroad, but could not recall specifically hearing about Paul Rainey. It was possible he had just forgotten if he had only been in one story. Men like Henry Slate, who had been Vernon’s friend and boss in the railroad police, and big Jim Styles from the Jackson yard who could, allegedly, pick up a railroad tie and toss it on to a flat car by himself, were the constant characters in Vernon’s stories. There where others too, hoboes and hustlers like Coal Car John and Feet McGee (he wore a size 14 boot) that populated Papaw’s world. Roger had told him that the stories “improved” over the years, but Walt wasn’t sure what that meant. Walt idolized his freewheeling Papaw. 


A little before 9 that morning, Walt was asking about Paul Rainey for the third time, when they heard a racket from the other side of the ridge. This was definitely not a squirrel. As they watched a little spike buck and two doe emerged on top of the ridge. Roger nudged the boy with his elbow and Walt raised the rifle to his shoulder. He put his eye to the scope and his crosshairs on the little buck. His heart was beating like it would come out of his chest. He could feel it in his eardrums, and see it at the edges of his vision. He took in short breaths and had a hard time holding the rifle still.  He heard his father say “take the shot” through gritted teeth. The picture in the scope would not stay still and Walt gave the trigger a hurried jerk. He missed, as he tried to cycle the lever he got a round stuck. It didn’t matter now, the spooked deer were long gone. Walt could feel Roger’s disappointment. He didn’t have to say a word. Roger took the rifle from Walt, unjammed the round and handed it back to him. They sat in silence, Walt fighting back tears. Around 10:45, Roger decided it was time to head back. He could tell Walt was upset and disappointed. He knew then that he should have said something to reassure the boy that he wasn’t upset, but it just hadn’t occurred to him and now the moment had passed. Where Vernon was full of words, quick to anger and quick to forgive, Roger struggled with finding words to say. His stoney silence was often mistaken for coldness or aloofness, but the fact was Roger just had a hard time knowing what to say where emotions were involved. This was a big part of why he and Walt’s Mom had divorced.

Walt walked with his head hung low. He could feel his father’s disappointment. As they walked back, Roger looked for the words to tell Walt. He decided now was as good a time as ever to tell him what had Vernon so upset. 


“I guess your Papaw never told you about Paul Rainey and Coal Car John. I suspect it’s a difficult thing for him to talk about”


Walt had heard all about the hobo Coal Car John, so named for the color of his skin, and not a preference for coal cars. Vernon had often related the tale of how John saved his life one frigid February day. They had been investigating a derailment in Mississippi, a little ways out of Memphis. Vernon was a young railroad policeman who had been brought down to assist the inspectors in painstakingly walking every foot of track in the area, looking for signs of sabotage. Vernon had slipped and fell into the icy waters of the Cold Water river. The inspectors searched for days and never found him, until he emerged from the woods 3 days later. A lone hobo known as Coal Car John had been watching from the woods, out of site of the railroad bulls, and had seen Vernon slip. The young railroad cop had lost consciousness almost immediately. John pulled him out, got him out of his wet clothes and treated his hypothermia with coffee and rotgut whiskey. As Vernon emerged from his delirium, the two men got to know each other. They had both served in the second world war. John had been a cook in the navy and Vernon an infantryman. While Vernon had come home, married Gertrude and went to work for the railroad, John’s homecoming had not been near as nice. His family sharecropped a piece of land around Byhalia, MS. His sister had taken off to New Orleans not long after he left. He sent letters and money back home to his aging parents, but since they could not read, he only got a reply when Mrs. Clark, the widow that owned the farm replied. Unbeknownst to John, Mr. Clark had gambled on a business venture by over leveraging his farm. When he passed unexpectedly, the widow Clark had to do everything she could to stay afloat. When her only son died in the war, she lost her will to go on. The bank took the land and John’s people were driven from their home. John had taken to hopping freight cars from town to town, hoping to find them, but after a few years he gave up, and mostly stayed around North Mississippi. Vernon had tried to get John to come stay with him in Memphis, and maybe get a job with the railroad, but John wasn’t interested in charity or going back to the society that had left him like this. He took on odd jobs when he needed to, worked the cotton gin during the busy season, and rode the rail when it pleased him to move around. John always returned to his home base for the winters. Word got around what had happened, there was an unwritten rule among the railroad bulls out of Memphis that a certain black hobo was not to hassled, and extended every courtesy. Although John was secretive about his comings and goings, he often shared a thermos of coffee with Vernon and a few of the other railroad men he had befriended. His moniker was a J in a circle drawn with a piece of coal, and it warmed Vernon’s heart whenever he saw it scrawled on a box car door. To pass the time, John carved crude little figures from wood and later from spikes and bits of metal found around the railroad lines. His specialty came to be angels he carved from piece of soft lead ingot he found somewhere. Many hobos did this, and would gift them to friendly strangers, or exchange them for food and other necessities.


As they walked, Roger told a story that Walt had never heard. Vernon had been a policeman for the railroad for ten years after he met John. He wouldn’t see him for months at a time, but when they did it was like they had never been apart. John would hang around for a few days and then be off again. By now Vernon had become an agent in charge with the Union Pacific railroad police. The inspectors got a call about a reefer (refrigerated car) that had been broken into. On inspection, a body had been found inside. It was John, he had been brutally beaten before being placed in the reefer alive, and freezing to death. Vernon was beside himself with rage and grief. The FBI took little interest in the murder of an itinerant homeless person with no family, and the case quickly went cold. Vernon was obsessed. He was drinking hard and was rarely home anymore. This was not long after Roger was born. Vernon questioned every hobo and rail tramp he could find. Slowly, word got around that the railroad bull name Vernon Shepherd was a friend of Coal Car John’s and a good man. People started telling what they knew.


There was a man who had started being seen in the woods where John lived most of the year. He didn’t live there, and was neither a hobo or hunter. He was known as a cruel man. He was suspected of dousing a small hobo camp with gasoline and burning the few belongings of its inhabitants. John was a loner, he would visit the camps, but preferred to make camp on his own, always in secret and never at the same place for long. Word got around that the woods were no longer safe, and the men who rode the rails avoided them. John, a creature of habit, remained where he was comfortable. 


With little more than his gut instinct telling him this was the man he was looking for, Vernon started spending every moment he could, and some he couldn’t, hunting his prey. Sure enough, he started seeing a man enter the woods with a backpack and a side arm. He had dark hair, and wore the clothes of a man who labored for a living. He was every bit of 6’ 3” with broad shoulders and thick forearms. The man had a hard and shallow look in his eyes. He wasn’t carrying a rifle, so he wasn't there to hunt. He would emerge again with the backpack empty. Vernon logged when he saw him and looked for patterns. The man would appear on Mondays and sometimes Thursdays around 8 AM. Vernon would track him a little further into the woods each time and then retreat to a blind he had set up, so as not too spook him. After weeks of observation he tracked the man to the remains of a hobo camp that had been burned. He watched as the man took two cloth wrapped bundles from the backpack and placed them in the hollow of a tree. Once he was unburdened of his load, he seemed to let his guard down. Vernon, with his hand on his sidearm stepped out on to the trail and said “I’d like to have a word if you don’t mind”. The man took off into the woods with Vernon behind him . The man obviously knew the terrain. He jumped into a sinkhole, and began firing at Vernon from the cover that it offered. Vernon hit the deck, and as he had done on the beach in France so many years ago, and crawled on his belly to a position of cover to regroup. When he got to a spot where the woods were too thick for his opponent to see, he made a wide arc to come around on the right flank. He inched his way towards the little ravine behind the man’s back. He was less than 10 feet away when the train came by. By now nearly an hour had passed, and in the racket of the train the man stood up, intending to slip out under the cover of the sound. Vernon took the same opportunity to make his move. He holstered his rail issued .38 colt and pulled a weighted sap from his back pocket. When the man started to walk towards the tracks Vernon leapt at him like a tiger. They went down in a heap, and in the struggle Vernon managed to roll the man on to his stomach and mount him like a horse, he brought the sap down hard on the back of the man’s head, knocking him unconscious, and cuffed his hands behind his back.


Vernon drug the man back to his truck. He took the unconscious giant to a long abandoned switchman’s shack. When he came, to he was sitting in a wooden chair, his hands still cuffed behind his back, and his feet secured to the legs with  rope. There was a pad of maps and charts in the shack, maybe 30 inches wide. Vernon rolled them tightly and wrapped duct tape from at the ends and the middle of the roll to fashion a bat of sorts. He poked the man with the bat as he regained consciousness. 


“I’m going to make this simple. What is your name and what are you doing in these woods?”


Vernon’s request was met with an insolent look and silence. He drew back and swung the bat at the man’s midsection, knocking the breath from him. He repeated the question, got the same answer and hit the man again. 


“How about a different question, do you know a hobo named Coal Car John?”


The man in the chair smiled, and looked Vernon straight in the eye and said “You mean the hobo ni….” and before he could get the word past his rotten teeth, Vernon brought the bat down against his rib cage, switched to the other side then beat the man until the chair fell over. He threw down the bat and caught his breath, while the man struggled on the ground, still secured to the chair. Vernon set him upright, and stared in to his cold, reptilian eyes. There was a trickle of blood coming from his nose and trailing down his thin lips, but he seemed unbothered by it. 


“I have a real good idea of what happened here, so if you value your life, you better start filling in the details. Who are you, what are you doing here, and what happened to John?”


The man in the chair gave Vernon a hard stare as he breathed hard, but never said a word. Then Vernon did something that caught him off guard. He took his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the blood form the man’s nose. 


“I apologize, I got a little overcome by my emotions. I see you are a hard man, and this tactic is a waste of my time. Would you agree?


The man gave no indication, but his eyes seemed to show a little fear. Vernon leaned against the broke down little desk and hooked his fingers into his belt. The man tied to the chair watched but tried to give nothing away. 


“Were you in the war? I don’t mean Korea, I mean the big one. No? I was, and I tell you I saw some shit I still have nightmares about. I heard some even crazier shit. You know who the meanest sons of bitches in the whole damn war were? Wasn’t the Krauts and it wasn’t the Japs, no it was the goddamn Russians. What brings it to mind is, they found John in a reefer car. The Russians are built for the cold, and they knew how to use it. See, a man won’t bleed out as fast in the cold, so you can keep him alive and miserable long enough to tell you anything”


With that Vernon reached into his holster and pulled out his service revolver. He opened the cylinder and let all the shells fall into his hand. He placed one back in the cylinder, put the rest in his shirt pocket, spun the cylinder and closed it. The man in the chair flinched as Vernon bound toward him and shoved the gun into his crotch. He backed the hammer.


“I know you’re a tough guy, ain’t afraid to die, but you want to live with your bits blown off? It’s Russian roulette, with a Russian twist. There’s going to be a reefer car come along here anytime now. So if I manage to blow one of your balls off and still don’t know what I want to know, I’m going to put your ass in it so you don’t go and die on me, and when you wake up we’re going to play again.”


The man’s eyes were wide with fear. Vernon said “Name?” No answer. He pulled the trigger to a loud click and backed the hammer again. The man in the chair had seen enough.


“OK, damn it , OK, my name is Paul Rainey, I load the bank cars, I’ve been filching bars of silver. I replace them with lead for the count, and sneak them out in my lunch box. I’ve been hiding them in the woods and that ni..”


With the offending word Vernon drove his left fist into Paul’s temple.


“One more time?”


“Your friend was robbing me. I just wanted to know what he did with them, but he wouldn’t tell me. Sumbitch deserved to die, and I enjoyed every minute of it”


Vernon felt anger coursing through his veins, and pounding in his temples. He drew the pistol back and swung it in a wide arc, knocking out what was left of the man’s front teeth. It was about that time that a man in a white shirt with a star, and a pistol on his belt came through the door.


“Vernon, what in the hell is going on here?”


It was a Carl Harper, a deputy with the Marshall county sheriff’s office, that Vernon knew from some investigations down this way. Vernon slid the pistol back into the holster on his belt. Paul was making such a racket that the two men stepped outside to talk.


“Vernon, what the hell? I was down at the four corners having a cold drink and one of them railroad tramps come running in saying there was a feller had another feller tied to a chair trying to kill him.”


Vernon looked the law man in the eye. “That is the sorry bastard that killed Coal Car John.”


A look of sadness came over Carl. “My boy got lost playing in these woods,  old John seen him home. He was a goodun', maybe a little simple, definitely peculiar, but a goodun’. I’m sorry Vernon, but I’m gonna have to have your pea shooter ‘fore you make this any worse.”


By nightfall the place was crawling with police, sheriff’s deputies, railroad agents and the FBI. Paul said he was coerced into a confession of John’s murder, but couldn’t get off on stealing the silver bars. Since the theft occurred during interstate commerce, the feds took the case. Paul got twenty years in Brushy Mountain for the theft, but was never charged with the murder. John had been cremated by the state and with the confession inadmissible, the prosecutor didn’t have much to go on. When the trial was over and the bailiffs were taking him away, Paul pulled away to give a hard look at Vernon who was getting up to leave.


“Enjoy your time when I’m in the pen rail pig. We’re gonna play another game when I get out.”


After it was over Vernon was quietly relieved of duty in a backroom deal that allowed him to keep his years, for his pension. He worked for a year at one of the railroad’s biggest shipping customers. He returned when a logistics position opened, and stayed with them until he retired a few years ago. He never again wore a sidearm in an official capacity, and that was just fine with him.



Vernon cleaned up around the cabin. He listened to a Jerry Clower cassette on the little boombox. He tried to think of anything but Paul Rainey getting out, and the uncomfortable emotions it had brought up. He had gone off the rails with John’s death, and his subsequent obsession with bringing his killer to justice. It had almost cost him his marriage, and did cost him a relationship with his young son, one that would take years to build later. It had also made him face up to the fact that he had come damn near killing a man tied to a chair. Then he thought about Paul’s last words to him. He wasn’t scared for himself, but what about Gertie, or Roger or god forbid Walt. When he ran out of things in the cabin to fuss over he started cleaning his guns, The A3-03 Springfield, the .38 Colt police positive he had carried for the railroad and the little .22 Derringer he kept in his pocket. There was also the double barreled 12 gauge that hung on the wall, and a pistol grip pump gun he kept in the truck just because. 


Walt and Roger came back in and told the tale of missing the buck. Vernon razzed the boy a bit and let it go. Roger took some hamburger patties out of the cooler and fired up the Coleman stove. The cast iron skillet that this morning’s bacon was cooked on still had a good bit of the grease left in it. When it got hot he tossed in the patties and peppered them. Vernon and Walt played checkers at the card table. Everybody was in good spirits. After they ate Roger laid down for a nap. Walt listened to more of Vernon’s stories that he had heard before, and didn’t let on that he knew anything more about Paul Rainey or even Coal Car John, but he looked at his Papaw through different eyes. The stories just a little more vivid, like he had gotten a glimpse of the man he used to be. That afternoon they did a little scouting around, with Vernon telling tales of mischief carried out by him and Uncle Elmer in various parts of the farm. Elmer was his older brother who had passed a few years before. Around four, Walt and Roger went back to the little creek stand to watch the crossing until the sun went down. They didn’t see anything and headed back to the mansion by flashlight. 


That night ,while they were eating hot ham sandwiches, Vernon looked at Walt and said “Did I ever tell you about Coal Car John? They drank cokes from the cooler, Vernon and Roger had a little bourbon in theirs. They stayed up later than they intended to. Vernon told the tale of falling in the river, various adventures of John’s and running into him around rail yards. He told him how, as a young railroad cop, John was his conduit into the hobo community. He showed him some of the carved figures John had given him as gifts, some made of wood others of soap stone or lead. Without going into the details he told Walt that John had been killed by Paul Rainey, and thats why his release was so upsetting. He seemed to feel better having unburdened himself of the story.


The next morning it rained. Vernon and Roger drank coffee from the percolator on the Coleman stove, and didn’t bother waking up Walt. They decided to go into town to get some more groceries, and have lunch at the little road side diner. While they were there, Vernon called his Neighbor Bill Starnes, a retired Memphis police officer, and let him know about Paul getting out. Bill told him he would have the guys at the station roll a car by every so often just in case. They drank peanut butter milk shakes and ate diner burgers. There were other hunters that had been rained out and everybody was making the most of it. Walt fed quarters to the old pinball machine, and Roger returned calls on his work cell. Vernon was still confused by cell phones and wondered why anyone would want to be tied to one. Luckily the one Roger had for work didn’t get coverage at the mansion, so it wasn’t a distraction. Vernon wasn’t exactly sure what Roger did for a living, but it had something to do with computers and must be pretty important if they needed him enough to stick him with a phone. They headed back to the mansion around three. It had stopped raining and Roger wanted to walk a bit. Walt was settled in with a graphic novel and Vernon fell asleep in his rocking chair. 


Roger liked the quiet of the woods. He liked the smell right after it rained. He liked spending time with his Dad and his son. He liked the fact that work couldn’t reach him. He was hoping that Walt would bag a deer this trip. It seemed like Walt was on the fence about all of this. Walt lived with his Mother since the divorce two years ago. There was nothing acrimonious about it, in fact, that was the problem, neither of them felt much of anything anymore. She kept the house, Walt lived there, and Roger got an apartment near the office. They still went to Walt’s things together, and the occasional birthday dinner or party, though Roger avoided social functions when he could. He liked hunting because it was a mostly solitary activity and hoped he could pass this love on to Walt. 


He walked towards the big creek to see if there were any signs of deer movement there. He found tracks and fresh droppings at the edge of the property next to the neighboring farmer’s corn field. He walked along the side of the field, to the remains of a storage shed. It was on a little hill that overlooked the mansion. He noticed a chair sitting next to the pile of timbers, that had not been there on his walk Saturday. He wondered if someone had been hunting there. When he got close the first thing he noticed was trash, cigarette butts, a chip bag and a Mountain Dew can. Even more strange was the fact that the chair was facing the mansion and not the corn field. Had he been listening to Vernon too much? Was he getting as crazy as the old man? He doubted half of Vernon’s tales, and he certainly didn’t think a broke down old convict was coming around to avenge a twenty year old beef. He imagined wherever Paul Rainey was he had forgotten all about Vernon Shepherd and was just glad to be free. 


He didn’t mention any of this to Vernon. The old man seemed to be in good spirits, and Roger didn’t see any point in getting him riled up again. Paul Rainey, had to be near as old as Vernon, and couldn’t seriously be in the condition, or of the inclination to do anything to put himself back in prison. Besides they had steaks to grill on the porch, and potatoes to bake in the pot bellied stove. They were going to pop one of the four Westerns they had on VHS into the VCR and have a good night.



They did have a good night. They watched “El Dorado” while Roger grilled steaks on the porch and listened through the window. He didn’t need to see it, he could recite it from memory. They ate their dinner, Roger and Vernon taking increasingly generous nips from the bottle of JW Dant. They even let Walt have a nip and howled with laughter at the sour face he made. Vernon was in good spirits, and told tales from the war and his days with the railroad, even a few Roger didn’t recall ever hearing. They talked about Coal Car John, and the man who killed him. Somehow just getting it out made it sit a little less heavy. Walt drifted off to sleep, and then Vernon followed. Roger covered them where they lay, and stepped out onto the porch to smoke a cigar he had been saving for no particular occasion. The night was cold, clear and crisp. Roger looked up and marveled how a clear night sky in the country never got old. 


Night time in the woods is quiet in the winter, nothing like Spring or Summer, when the crickets and cicadas make such a racket. The hunters of the night forrest move in silence, their prey even quieter. Roger heard a twig break somewhere in the woods and it sounded like a rifle shot.

The sound put Roger on alert. He listened for footfalls to follow it but they never came. He walked to the edge of the clearing the mansion sat on and shined his little flashlight into the trees. The light didn’t go far, and he didn’t hear anymore sounds. Roger stubbed out his cigar and decided to call it a night.


The next morning Roger was up at 4:30, feeling no ill effects of his parlay with Mr. Dant the night before. Walt had moved from the chair to his cot at some point in the night, and Roger woke him with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Vernon was still in the chair, he gave a grumble when the light came on and went right back to sleep, Roger decided to let him be. He tossed yesterday’s biscuit and bacon leftovers on the pot belly stove to warm, and poured coffee from the percolator on the Coleman stove into two old mugs. Roger took a nip in his. Coffee was a new thing for Walt, and he wasn’t sure he liked it, but as adult drinks go, it suited him better than bourbon. 


Breakfast in their bellies, they made their way back to the little creek stand in the darkness just before dawn. Walt wasn’t feeling as anxious, or talkative as he was just the day before yesterday. Time with his father and grandfather, tasting the whiskey and walking into the darkness with an old rifle had him feeling more of a man than his years. There was an easy silence between father and son that took the edge off the cold morning. A fox ran across them around 7:30 am and it gave Walt a thrill. 


Close to 9, Walt couldn’t stand it anymore, he had to empty his bladder of the morning’s coffee. He whispered to Roger who was relieved, because he had to go too. They climbed down from the stand and began coming out of the layers of coveralls, flannel and thermals. Walt was starting to zip back up, and Roger was still midstream, when they heard a tremendous racket coming from just over the ridge other side of the creek. Roger looked at Walt, who grabbed his rifle leaned against the tree. Roger just froze as a 6 point buck with two does following him crested the ridge and ran down to the creek. The deer hadn’t sensed the hunters until they were about 20 yards away. The buck turned broadside to them right by the little creek and stood still, considering his next move. Roger tried to speak but there was no need. Walt raised the rifle to his shoulder, released the safety, sighted, and squeezed the trigger in an even motion. The rifle report made their ears ring, as Walt cycled the lever to bring another round into the chamber of the old 30-30. The deer stood for a second and Walt thought he had missed, it walked a few steps with Walt trying to line up another shot and fell, a hole just behind where the front legs meet the body. Roger let out a belly laugh that shook the woods. Sure, he was proud of Walt, and a first deer is a huge milestone, but the story to be told of the two of them with their coveralls around their ankles was just too much to keep the seriousness of the occasion.



Vernon was awakened to the sound of a rifle shot in the distance. It startled him, and he sat upright in the chair and looked around. The dingy clock over the stove showed it was 9am. Vernon couldn’t believe he had slept this long. He felt a little foggy. It had been a long time since he had had such an involved discussion with Mr. Dant, but he had enjoyed his night with the fellows, and if that was the price then so be it. He poured himself a cup of warm coffee from the percolator and splashed a little bourbon in it. He found a cassette of Ray Price and his Cherokee cowboys and put it in the little boombox radio on the counter. Before Ray and the boys could finish “Crazy Arms” he heard a knock at the door. It was a little peculiar, but not unheard of for a neighbor to drop by this early, to catch up or borrow the 4-wheeler to retrieve a deer from the woods. Vernon stood to the side of the door (old police habit) and cracked it enough to look out. There was a skinny, pimply faced boy of about 16, with horn rimmed glasses wearing a black shirt that said “Pixies” on it under a red plaid flannel shirt. Vernon had never seen him before and he certainly wasn’t dressed for hunting.


“Morning son, what can I do for you?”


“I was, uh, trying to find my way back to the road, and I umm wandered over here…”


Vernon told the boy to wait while he got his shoes, and he would show him the way. He went and retrieved his shoes and paused for a minute to shove his old .38 into the waist band of his pants, behind his back and under his flannel shirt but over the thermal. Vernon stepped out onto the porch, he saw a flash out of the corner of his right eye and then the lights went out.



When Roger finally managed to quit laughing, he went over to Walt and put an arm around his shoulder.


“Hell yeah, son! Congratulations on a good clean kill. That was perfect, even with your britches around your ankles”


That resulted in a fresh round of laughter. They got themselves zipped up and headed down the hill. Little creek was bigger than it looks once they got down to it, and Roger nearly did not stick the landing on the other side. He unsheathed the fixed blade knife on his belt, the same Schrade he had field dressed his first deer with and handed it to Walt. Walt shuddered and took the knife from his father. He tentatively made the first cut and found he had to really put some muscle into it. Though the hunt might be romanticized in their tales later, this part was uncomfortable, messy and smelled terrible. After field dressing the buck both men peeled out of their bloody coveralls. The sun was coming up, and it was warm enough for the jeans and flannels with thermals underneath that they were both wearing. It was decided that Roger would go back to the mansion to get the 4 wheeler and Walt would stay with the buck. Before he walked away, Roger removed the sheath for the old Schrade form his belt and handed it to Walt. “It’s yours now”.


The adrenaline was starting to leave Walt. He was satisfied. He had struggled with the thought of taking an animal’s life. He ate meat, but this was different. He did not feel guilty, he felt a sense of gratitude. He felt pride but at the same time, humility. He couldn’t wait to tell the the tale to his Papaw.



When Vernon came to, he was tied to one of the straight backed wooden chairs that sat around the card table in the little kitchen.  As his vision returned, he could make out a figure looming over him. He was gray and scarred, his few remaining teeth were mostly rotten, and he emitted a feral scent. There was no mistaking who it was, and Paul Rainey tauntingly waved the leather sap in front of his face.


“Remember this? First thing I did when I got out of the joint. Took my gate money to the army surplus and picked myself up one just like yours.”


With that he brought it down on Vernon’s upper arm. Not hard enough to break the bone but it did enough damage. Vernon absorbed the blow with little more than a grunt and Paul brought it down on the other arm. Vernon noticed the boy in the corner turning his face away.


“What’s wrong with you boy? You a sissy? You don’t have the stomach for this? I owe this son of a bitch for a beating and twenty fucking years of my goddamn life.”


With that he brought the sap down again against Vernon’s rib cage. There was a sickening crunch but Vernon bit down hard and didn’t give him the satisfaction of a cry. The boy was cowering now and Paul started towards him.


“You watch what the hell you are doing. There are two more of them running around here. You shoot anything comes through that goddamn door or you’re next.”


The boy turned towards the door and held the big revolver in both hands. 


“You see Sgt. Shepherd, I knew I had a son who was no fucking good, but it turns out I got a grandson while I was in the joint. His no good Daddy died, and his miserable slut mother immediately shacked up with some other asshole who couldn’t stand him, so we started exchanging some letters. You wouldn’t believe the things that little bastard can find on one of them gizmos that everybody got their nose in these days.”


Vernon was hardly paying attention, he had managed to get his fingers into his wallet and pull out a little P38 can opener he kept there since the war. No particular reason, it had made the whole tour with him, and he felt like it was a good luck charm. He was working it against the ropes as furiously as he could without arousing Paul’s suspicion. Paul walked over to the TV and picked up the .38 he had taken from Vernon’s waistband. He opened the cylinder, dumped the shells, put one in the cylinder, gave it a spin and snapped it closed.


“I recall you and me played a little game, but I never got my turn. You wouldn’t mind if I took it now would you?”


Roger was whistling a tune to himself when he stepped on to the porch of the mansion. He noticed the door was ajar and got a bad feeling. He saw his Daddy tied to the chair and started running toward him. The next thing he knew he was hit with a force that knocked him backward. He barely heard the report of the big .357 and felt the pressure in his shoulder before he lost consciousness. Paul relieved him of the .45 on his belt, kicked his rifle away and left him on the porch in the doorway.. He turned to congratulate the boy, but he was throwing up in the little sink. 


“This your boy Vernon? I was going to go ahead and kill you, until this fell in my lap. Let’s wait until he comes around, I would like to get to know both of you. Think you can hang on that long?”


Vernon glared with rage. He didn’t even feel his injuries anymore. He was working the little P38 against the ropes for all he was worth. Paul pulled up a chair to face Vernon.


“Grand kids are a wonderful thing ain’t they Vernon? Little Andrew here is mine. His Momma and Daddy never really told him where he come from, but you know kids get curious. This ones a little bookish for my taste, but I reckon I can't complain seeing as thats how he came to find me. Yessir, this here boy had no idea his granddaddy was a famous train robber. He learned to hate the sorry son of a bitch who snuck up on me and tried to kill me, put me in prison all over some nigger bum he thought was his friend.”


Vernon looked at the boy. He didn’t see hatred, he saw fear. Fear and revulsion were written all over the boy’s face. 


Walt had gotten anxious waiting on Roger to come back. He figured the deer wasn’t going anywhere, and started back to the mansion. When he heard a shot ring out he broke into a run. When he got near the edge of the clearing where the cabin stood, he saw something that stopped him cold. His Daddy lying on the porch, blood pouring from his shoulder. Roger was starting to come around, weak from loss of blood and the intense pain in his shoulder. He saw Walt and raised a single finger to his lips. Walt understood and stepped behind a tree at the edge of the clearing. He unslung his 30-30, a round already in the chamber. Through the open door, he saw a man’s back in one of the wooden chairs they would sit in around the little card table. The man stood up and Walt could see his Daddy’s .45 in the waistband of the man’s pants at the small of his back. A revolver was in the man’s right hand. Walt shouldered his weapon and took aim. He was shaking, he jerked the trigger and his shot went high and left into the wall of the cabin. Andrew crouched on the ground. Paul, still facing Vernon, turned to yell at the boy “Cover your man goddamnit”. Vernon saw his opportunity. The shot of adrenaline from the gunshot gave him the burst of strength he needed to tear through what was left of the ropes that bound his hands. His feet still bound to the chair, he raised up and butted his head into Paul. While Paul was reeling backward form the blow Vernon brought the sharp little P38  across his jugular vein and it gushed red blood. One hand to his throat, Paul brought up the .38 and pointed it at Vernon with the other, and managed to pull the trigger twice to the click of empty cylinders, before falling to the floor. Everyone froze as the boy pointed the big revolver at Vernon seated in the chair.


“Here’s your chance son, drop that piece and run like hell, or stay here and face someone else’s consequences.”


The boy was trembling he closed his eyes for a moment, threw down the pistol and bolted out the cabin door. Walt swung his rifle around until he heard Vernon shout. “Let him go”. He dropped the rifle where he stood and ran to his father. 


“I’m gonna be ok Walt, check on Papaw”


Walt ran to his grandfather, unsheathed the Schrade and cut his legs loose from the chair. The old man was bruised and had blood caked on his nose and mouth but he was still full of fight.


“Take the 4 wheeler to Mr. Butler’s place and get help Walt”


The boy stood in shock for a moment until Vernon placed a hand on his shoulder. “We’re gonna be fine son, go get help and tell Mr. Butler to call the Sheriff.” 


He turned to run and Vernon called to him. “Don’t say nothing about that boy that run out of here.”


Walt didn’t understand, and didn’t really care about anything but getting help for his Daddy. Vernon was blotting his son’s wound. It was a through and through, likely not fatal but extremely painful.”


“Walt killed a deer Daddy, six point buck”


“That’s good, that’s real good son, just take it easy”


Vernon looked at the dead man on the floor. He didn’t look much like the monster that had been standing over him, tied to that chair. He was pathetic, jailhouse swastikas tattooed on his arms and worn out fatigues from the army surplus. It seemed strange that it was finally over. He had held a grudge against this man for all those years. His actions had changed the course of Vernon’s life and robbed him of the friendship of one of the finest men he had ever known, and now it was done. A lowlife in a pool of blood on his cabin floor.


Walt was tearing through the woods. When he got to the road he was nearly run over by a rusted old Ford truck, the boy who had run from the cabin was driving away as fast as the heap would go. He got to the Butler’s just as the man and his son were returning to from their morning of hunting. He told them that there was a fight and that his Daddy was shot. Mr. Butler yelled for his wife to send the Sheriff and an ambulance to the Shepherd place. The man and the boy jumped in their truck while Walt led the way on Vernon’s old 4 wheeler.


When they got to the house Vernon was sitting on the porch with Roger’s head on his leg. Inexplicably they were both laughing. Both men were hurting, but nobody was dying, so they didn’t attempt to move Roger. Mr. Butler, a farmer and a deacon in his little church, had a look of shock on his face. His son also looked like he had seen a ghost. Roger was the first to speak.


“Mr. Butler, my boy Walt shot a real nice 6 point down by little creek. We sure would be obliged if your boy took our 4 wheeler down there and got him”


Mr. Butler gave them a look of disbelief, and nodded to his son. The young man got on the 4 wheeler and took off.


Vernon looked at Mr. Butler “Take it over to Branham’s to butcher, I expect it will be Monday before we can get by there, but he know’s I’m good for it. I was starting to think we’d go hungry if these two couldn’t get it together.”


Three paramedics, and all but one deputy of the Crockett county Sheriff’s department, came and the story was repeated at least a dozen times. No mention was made of the boy who had come with Paul.



Thanksgiving dinner was served in a large recovery room in the hospital in Jackson. Roger and Vernon in beds side by side, with Gertrude making plates from tupperware containers, and fussing over the boys. Walt’s mother came. She didn’t say much,  just oscillated between holding on to Walt and holding Roger’s hand. Walt told the story of shooting the buck with their coveralls around their ankles and everybody laughed. The other story that they weren’t telling the world, was a last souvenir of the ordeal from Coal Car John. The figures he carved from lead weren’t lead at all. Apparently John had been helping himself to a few of the silver bars Paul had been stealing. Did he know what they were when he took them from the tree where he found them? There was no way of knowing now. Sadly, the little treasures he spread in his travels probably led to his untimely death. Walt was only a few days older than when they got to the mansion, but he felt years beyond. Despite the fact that his voice was just starting to change, and he wasn’t even in high school yet, he felt like a man amongst two men he looked up to. Later he would think about the events and shudder in fear, but not today. Vernon must have repeated the story 100 times to every Dr. and nurse in the hospital and at least half of the phone numbers in the worn black address book he kept in his back pocket. Each time it got a little better.

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